‘Assad Must Go’ and the Syrian Red-Line: Next came two more examples of presidential rhetoric outstripping U.S. willingness and motivation to act. Perhaps understandably, in response to the Assad regime’s savage use of air and artillery strikes against civilians, including the use of barrel bombs, the president repeatedly called for the removal of the Syrian dictator and in 2011 warned that the regime’s use of chemical weapons was unacceptable, suggesting a tough U.S. response. The backstory of Obama’s retreat from the so-called redline need not detain us here. The point is that for a second time in the Middle East, on a crisis far more important than the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian problem, the president committed himself to actions he did not take. There was no military response to the red line’s crossing by Assad. Not only does the dictator still hold power, but the United States may well have no choice, if there is a political process to end Syria’s civil war, but to accept Assad as part of the solution.
Defeating ISIS: Having first underestimated the danger of the Islamic State, characterizing it in 2014 as a JV team, the president soon began to talk of degrading and ultimately destroying the putative terror state. The latest rhetorical formulation Obama used was that of being “on track to defeat” ISIS. The president cannot afford to take the threat lightly. But none of the words he has used — first destroy, then defeat — seem to have any grounding in reality. A year after the Islamic State established its caliphate, it is ensconced in Syria, and in Iraq too. And while the United States has had success in killing ISIS fighters and leaders, and in working with local allies to recover territory, the Islamic State seems here to stay. Recent reports that the administration has only trained some 60 Syrian recruits for the battle against ISIS — some of whom were promptly killed or captured by Jabhat al-Nusrah, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria — only attest to the gap between promises and delivery.