March 14, 2018

Obama Owns the Syria Crisis

Hundreds are dead and thousands wounded after an intensive bombing campaign in Eastern Ghouta by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Images of bloodied children, carnage, and destroyed homes have made the rounds across major media outlets. Opinion pieces have slowly started to roll out questioning President Trump’s decision to remain removed from the conflict, with criticism coming most notably from two former Obama State Department appointees, Evelyn Farkas and Frederic Hof, writing in The Atlantic.

This is nothing more than an attempt to confuse the fact that Obama, not Trump, is responsible for the worsening bloodshed in Syria.

Syria has been in a state of civil war since March 2011. More than 500,000 have been killed and millions remain displaced in one of the worst humanitarian crises in the modern era. European governments have been destabilized from the millions of refugees who have fled, seeking safety. How did the United States let it get this bad? Because President Obama offered no leadership as Syria descended into chaos and the world is now forced to face the aftermath of that mistake.

Obama’s decision to remain clear of Syria was calculated. Looking for a major foreign-policy achievement, the president wanted to cement his legacy by signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. Negotiators from Tehran issued a warning to Washington that no deal would happen if the United States became embroiled in the Syrian civil war. Presented with the opportunity to secure the nuclear deal, Obama and his team decided to “lead from behind” in Syria, leaving other nations to deal with the issue.

Unfortunately, the Iran Deal had the consequence of significantly accelerating strife in Syria. By freeing up hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctioned money, Tehran was able to prop up Assad and his murderous regime, to the generous tune of $6 to $35 billion a year, according to the U.N. special envoy to Iran, Staffan de Mistura. Oil, foot soldiers, and munitions followed. Worse, Iran was able to provide substantial funding to its proxy group, Hezbollah, whose radical Islamist fighters poured into Syria to support Assad.

Obama’s lack of leadership in Syria also left other actors to fill the gap. Seeing an opportunity to advance his goal of returning Russia to global-power status, Vladimir Putin sent soldiers and military support to the Syrian regime in 2015. Moscow continues to help train Assad’s forces and has partaken in airstrikes. Russia-Syrian joint forces have conducted hundreds of airstrikes in Eastern Ghouta alone.

Even as Russia stepped up its influence alongside Iran and Hezbollah, and the situation continued to deteriorate, President Obama kept America on the sidelines. Syrians faced the meat grinder of the Assad regime, and Washington apparently didn’t feel obligated to highlight the atrocities. The Obama administration remained silent on Iran and Hezbollah’s frequent attacks on civilian populations.

Surprisingly, Washington even curtailed the use of military force against radical Islamist groups such as ISIS. While images of ISIS beheading American captives splashed across television screens worldwide, the Obama administration remained mired in passivity. Former CIA director Mike Morrell disclosed that fear of environmental harm, from the destruction of ISIS’s oil wells, kept the U.S. from waging a full-fledged campaign to destroy the terror group and its financing mechanisms. So we launched strikes on individual trucks rather than oil wells or infrastructure.

Unfortunately, Obama’s inaction on this front wasn’t the worst of his blunders. Previously, the president had set a “red line” warning the Syrian government that the United States would not accept the use of chemical weapons in the conflict. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama noted in August 2012.

But the red line vanished. The world watched in shock as Assad slaughtered his own people using chemical weapons, testing the former president’s response. Obama condemned the attack and expressed “grave concerns” over the situation, but no tangible concessions from Assad or military response followed. He proved his own “red line” to be an empty threat, shattering American credibility.

With Obama’s missteps, one is right to ask what Trump has done since he’s taken office. To start, he has loosed the rules of engagement to allow our troops to be less constrained when combating radical Islamist terrorist groups. ISIS remains on the run in both Syria and Iraq and has lost more than 98 percent of its territory, mostly since Trump took office.

The authoritarian regimes in Iran and Russia have also been put on watch. In a recent major escalation, United States forces killed or wounded more than 300 Kremlin-backed guns for hirenear the city of Deir al-Zor, in Syria. Assailants attempted to launch an assault on an American baseand were obliterated in a clash more deadly than any single occasion during the cold war. Trump offered no apologies or condolences to Putin after it was revealed that dozens of fighters were Russian citizens, fighting under the guise of mercenaries.

Most significantly, the Trump administration has stood firm on its stance that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. Emboldened by Obama’s feeble response, Assad launched a chemical attack on the Syrian city of Khan Shaykhun in April 2017. More than 80 were killed, with hundreds injured including women and children.

The United States responded immediately, launching 59 Tomahawk missiles at Shayrat Airbase and wiping out approximately 20 percent of the Assad regime’s airpower. Thankfully, these actions made clear that the current administration will take decisive measures to ensure that chemical weapons are not normalized.

Despite these firm actions from the current administration, Trump can do only so much. President Obama ceded too much control to Iran and Russia, and further American involvement would probably initiate a major military confrontation. So when you see the humanitarian catastrophe blare across your television, remember that President Obama is the reason we cannot do more. America’s hands remain tied from past failures.

Blaming the current Syria situation on President Trump is both dishonest and unscrupulous. Obama’s handling of Syria was disastrous. Expecting Trump to fix the mess overnight is ridiculous. He and his team are now attempting to uphold international law and halt the worsening humanitarian crisis. But they have few good options, thanks to President Obama.

-- Alex Titus, Fellow at America First Policies

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