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Syria’s war, post-Obama: America unrestrained?

Syria’s conflict has doubtless been affected by Obama’s aversion to getting involved. So what happens when he leaves office?
File photo shows US President Barack Obama (AFP)

NEW YORK, United States  US President Barack Obama’s reluctance to use force in Syria has been among the most contentious aspects of his foreign policy. A recent internal government memo signed by dozens of US diplomats, criticising his stewardship of the war, is the latest incarnation of dissent.

By Obama’s metric, he has eschewed calls from many advisors to unleash the US military’s awesome firepower on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and tilt the war in favour of the Free Syrian Army and other rebels.

But with just seven months left of his presidency, and Syria’s bloodshed continuing despite a shaky UN-backed ceasefire, it may be prudent to ask whether Obama’s successor will show similar restraint and ask what policy shifts would mean for the war in its seventh year.

“It has come to a head now because the ceasefire has completely broken down and the US State Department, particularly its mid-level diplomats, feels Obama’s pacifism has convinced Assad that he can violate the ceasefire without consequences,” Plymouth University scholar Christian Emery told Middle East Eye.

“The State Department view is that a few well-aimed cruise missiles in Assad’s direction may concentrate his mind into committing to negotiations and maintaining the ceasefire. Obama has given them a hearing, but says US strikes would inevitably provoke the Russians to double down on support for him.”

Obama won the White House in 2008 on the promise of bringing US servicemen home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Stopping America from getting dragged into more Middle Eastern chaos has been something of a badge of honour for the 44th president.

In August 2013, he shocked Secretary of State John Kerry, then-Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and others by calling off air strikes he had vowed to order if Assad’s forces crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons. Nine days earlier, a Sarin gas strike killed some 1,400 Syrians.

Obama’s aides and US allies were stunned that the he did not come good on his threat. But, in an interview with The Atlantic magazine, the president revealed he was “proud” of eschewing his “national security apparatus” and breaking from the “Washington playbook”. 

For Obama, such military and diplomatic protocols are a trap that lured America into Vietnam and other quagmires. Launching cruise missiles at Damascus would likely not topple Assad, and possibly bolster him and enmesh the US in another costly war.

But the playbook dies hard, and advocates of its doctrine continue to make their voices heard. A leaked internal memo signed by 51 US rank-and-file diplomats criticising Obama’s Syria policy sent shockwaves around Washington last month.

The document – sent through the State Department’s “dissent channel,” a conduit for voicing contrary opinions meant to be confidential – underscored long-standing divisions and frustrations among Obama’s aides over his response to Syria’s five-year-old civil war.

Obama’s Syria policy has been widely criticised as risk-averse and hesitant. Obama’s limited intervention has focused on fighting the Islamic State (IS) militant group that controls a swathe of Syria and Iraq and which has inspired attacks on US soil.

A draft of the cable, obtained by The New York Times, calls for “targeted military strikes” on Assad’s forces – something opposed by Obama – to stop persistent violations of a ceasefire with US-backed anti-government rebels that is largely ignored by Syria and its Russian backers.

“The memo reflects some level of frustration in the State Department … a sense that the president will not countenance a military means to persuade Assad to abide by ceasefires brokered by the US, the UN and Russia,” Barak Barfi, a researcher with the New America Foundation think tank told MEE.

“But this is the Obama administration’s home stretch. They want to hold down the fort and avoid any unexpected, unmanageable situations. Implementing the memo would be opening a Pandora’s Box for the next administration, which is not how Obama wishes to leave office.”

White House officials said the criticism is not likely to spur any policy changes on Syria in the final months of Obama’s presidency. But the document’s critique is understood to be shared by Kerry as well as others in the foreign policy establishment. 

“We only know the people who signed it, not the countless people who did not,” Jonathan Cristol, a scholar at the World Policy Institute think tank, told MEE.

Crucially, critics of Obama’s Syria policy include the two people most likely to replace him – the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican counterpart, the coiffed celebrity builder Donald Trump.

Clinton, who leads Trump in opinion polls by five percentage points despite a scandal over her slapdash use of a private email account while secretary of state, repeatedly tried and failed to convince her less-hawkish boss on the merits of a humanitarian intervention in Syria. 

In her run for the Oval Office, Clinton has complained that “nobody stood up to Assad and removed him” and has called for a no-fly zone in northern Syria to create “safe havens for those poor Syrians who are fleeing both Assad and ISIS [IS]”.

She also argued for a scheme to train and equip Syrian rebels that was partially implemented, but saw many fighters defect. 

“A Clinton administration will be involved on a much greater level in Syria and the memo does show that there will be many people in the State Department who will be receptive to an increase in involvement in Syria,” added Cristol.

Trump takes a different stand. His foreign policy involves a retrenchment of US forces, so that allies do more of the heavy lifting and other major global powers, such as Russia and China, wield more influence in their neighbourhoods.

Nevertheless, Obama’s indecision in the Middle East has “created space for ISIS to expand” and some 20,000-30,000 US troops may be needed in Iraq and Syria to defeat a group that has been linked to terror attacks in Florida and California, Trump says.

Many pundits – even Republican foreign policy wonks – are wary of their party’s apparent standard bearer. Neo-conservatives and others see Washington as a leader of international peace and security – not a back-seat driver.

“I imagine Assad is rooting for Trump to win, with his 1930s-style Republican isolationism,” said Barfi. 

“The Syrian opposition is rooting for Clinton, an internationalist who supported interventions in Iraq and Libya and who helped plan to arm Syria’s rebels in the war’s early years. If she’s elected, there could be a significant increase in US involvement in the conflict. 

“But what that looks like is the $64,000 question.”

For Barfi, Obama’s reluctance to commit forcefully to Syria has avoided tough questions that Clinton may have to answer. Striking Assad’s forces would help US-backed rebels, but it would also aid IS and other Islamist groups.

“The strategic goal of defeating IS cannot be achieved in a vacuum, so you need to have anti-regime component, such as air strikes. But Russia’s involvement makes it much more difficult for the US to get involved in the crowded airspace over northern Syria,” Barfi said.