In President Barack Obama’s penultimate State of the Union address last Tuesday, there was no reference to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. This was the first time since 2011 and the eruption of the brutal Syrian civil war that Obama had not mentioned, or even obliquely alluded to, the Syrian dictator’s crimes against humanity.
This was no accident. Little more than one year after the President of the United States addressed the American people in a prime time address aimed at shoring up support for a humanitarian intervention in a war in which Assad had deployed weapons of mass destruction against civilian populations, America’s regional doctrine has evolved dramatically.
“The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” read a White House statement in 2011. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Obama later insisted extemporaneously that “Assad must go,” and set his now infamous “red line” for military action in Syria.
For the sake of political expediency, Obama backed off both his “red line” and his insistence that Assad must be removed. The president did not want to invite scorn by taking a necessary course of action that was nevertheless opposed by a majority of the public. Today, 220,000 lives later and following the precedent-setting use of chemical weapons, the White House has essentially conceded that Assad must stay.
“[I]t has to be dispiriting for the president who created the Atrocities Prevention Board (“President Obama has made the prevention of atrocities a key focus of this Administration’s foreign policy,” a White House fact sheet says) to acknowledge implicitly that he has no Syria strategy without Assad,” wrote Fred Hiatt in The Washington Post.
Hiatt observed that Assad is not the only partner of necessity that the Obama White House has reluctantly embraced. From Egypt’s junta leader-turned-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to the government of Bahrain, to Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, the White House is sacrificing American ideals in the name of expediency.
From Azerbaijan to Saudi Arabia, where Obama will visit Tuesday, the United States is cozying up to dictators who share some key attributes. They agree with the United States that Islamic extremism must be fought. But they also go after nonviolent opponents — and they are most ferocious against secular, liberal critics. By destroying any moderate forces, they can present themselves as the only alternative to religious fundamentalism.
If partnering with these people offered an effective defense against terrorism, maybe it would be worth overcoming any moral qualms.
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board has noticed that the White House is signaling its acceptance of the status quo in Syria. That disturbing development in concert with the administration’s conciliatory approach to a rapidly nuclearizing Iran has prompted the paper to sound the alarm bells.
Aligning with Assad will also undermine the anti-ISIS coalition that Mr. Obama said in his State of the Union address is broad and stalwart. Apart from the Iraqis and Kurds, the two most important nations in that coalition are Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Both are enemies of Assad and have been urging the U.S. to more actively assist in his ouster. The Turks in particular have offered only tepid support because Mr. Obama won’t assist the anti-Assad rebels with some kind of no-fly safe haven.
Assad and Iran also aren’t doing all that much to defeat Islamic State, which continues to hold major chunks of Syria. Instead they have focused on defeating the non-jihadist rebels that Mr. Obama has said the U.S. supports. This makes strategic sense for Assad, who wants to become the only alternative to ISIS so the West will have nowhere else to turn.
The longer-term worry is that propping up Assad will assist Iran’s strategy to become the dominant regional power to the detriment of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Israel. Those U.S. allies fear that this is precisely what Mr. Obama is moving toward—an entente with Iran that starts with a nuclear accord that leaves Tehran on the cusp of having the bomb whenever it chooses. Then the U.S. winks at Assad’s survival in Syria.
It is in that final paragraph that the most all-consuming fear is articulated. The White House is eagerly sacrificing America’s moral authority in the Middle East, and there is no shortage of irony in the fact that Obama campaigned on the pledge that he would restore the region’s faith in American ideals. The more pressing source of concern, however, is that the last six years of governance from the White House have conceded American global retrenchment will ultimately yield the reestablishment of zones of influence.
In Eastern Europe, Russia is casually deploying combat troops into adjacent nations in a flagrant effort to reconstruct the former Soviet sphere. In East Asia, a rising China is acquiring territory in the South China Sea in preparation for what many believe will be an attempt to follow in Moscow’s footsteps in the Spratlys. In the Middle East, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey are engaged in a terrifying and increasingly overt contest to carve the region up into spheres of influence in preparation for a contest that will determine which power will enjoy regional hegemony.
This is all quite destabilizing and will inevitably lead to the return of great power conflict. Whether the president has intentionally embarked on a course designed to reshape America’s approach to foreign alliances or is merely pursuing the path of least resistance, the results will be catastrophically similar. And the verdict of history will not be kind.