It was only just over 15 months ago that President Barack Obama’s administration embarked on a half-hearted quest to gin up support at home and abroad for a military campaign that would have made good on the president’s half-hearted “red line” for action in Syria. Unsurprisingly, neither the American people nor the citizens of allied nations were especially enthusiastic about following the reluctant American commander-in-chief into a military engagement he clearly did not want to fight.
Just days before Obama delivered a prime-time address in which he revealed his intention pursue two off ramps that allowed him to avoid punishing and containing Bashar al-Assad (Congressional authorization and a Russian-brokered deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria), Secretary of State John Kerry further undermined the administration’s position. On a diplomatic mission to London, Kerry defined the measure that would be meted out to Syria’s government for having used chemical weapons on civilians in defiance of the American president’s warnings.
“That is exactly what we are talking about doing, unbelievably small, limited kind of effort,” Kerry said when asked about the campaign the United States envisioned. He added that the military mission would be a “very limited, very targeted, short-term effort.”
You know the rest of the story. There was no intervention, the chemical weapons attacks continued, and what was a containable civil conflict in Syria spilled out into the region and has evolved into a sectarian nightmare with battlefields flaring from North Africa to the Persian Gulf.
Nearly a year and a half later, and with Assad still clinging to power and using America’s inevitable engagement in Syria to further his own interests, Kerry has resurrected the claim that military force might be necessary to remove Assad from power.
Military pressure may be needed to oust Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Saudi Arabia on Thursday.
“He’s lost any semblance of legitimacy, but we have no higher priority than disrupting and defeating Daesh and other terror networks”, he told reporters, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group which has seized swathes of Syria and Iraq.
“Ultimately a combination of diplomacy and pressure will be needed to bring about a political transition. Military pressure particularly may be necessary given President Assad’s reluctance to negotiate seriously.”
Of course, Kerry’s pronouncement has little authority behind it. Assad knows quite well that, if there was no international mission to oust him from office in 2012-2013, there isn’t going to be one now. Moreover, the administration has made it clear that they are as or more concerned with what would follow Assad than they are with the suboptimal state of affairs associated with leaving him in his position.
The White House is not wrong to fear the day that follows Assad’s ouster. The coalition of forces that could have replaced the dictator in Damascus in 2012 might have been a relatively responsible interim government. Today, there is almost no hope that the West could midwife the development of an indigenous coalition government today. The only option forward for Syria now is for one of the parties fighting in that country’s brutal civil conflict to win it definitively and unambiguously. Only then will there be some agreement among the surviving parties on a pathway forward.
The White House had its chance to prevent a conflagration in the Middle East, and they passed on it in the name of political expediency. Today, the world is unquestionably worse off for the administration’s cowardice. Kerry may have some regrets, as he should, but regrets do serve as a substitute for a coherent policy approach.