FPI Bulletin: Obama’s Final Opportunity on Syria

October 5, 2016

The White House will reportedly hold a cabinet-level meeting today to discuss U.S. military options for the Syrian conflict. The meeting comes two days after the administration suspended bilateral negotiations with Moscow on Syria, and while the forces of Bashar al-Aassad—backed by his Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah allies—escalate their brutal siege of the city of Aleppo.

Josh Rogin of the Washington Post reports that the options to be discussed at the meeting “include bombing Syrian air force runways using cruise missiles and other long-range weapons fired from coalition planes and ships.” Other options include providing more “weapons for some Syrian rebel groups and an increase in the quality of such weapons, to allow rebels to defend Aleppo’s civilians.” The Wall Street Journal reports further that while “the Obama administration has ruled out providing so-called man-portable air-defense systems, known as Manpads, to the rebels,” but may provide antiaircraft systems that would pose less of a proliferation risk.

These discussions come at a critical time during the years-long siege of Aleppo. In recent weeks, Assad’s forces have launched the most devastating assault of the entire war, threatening the lives of the city’s 250,00 residents—of whom 100,000 are children. Hospitals have been repeatedly struck by Russian aircraft, including one buried beneath a mountainside to protect it from attack. Overall, as many as 9,000 Syrians have been killed due to Russian airstrikes. Syrian regime forces surrounding the city have been bolstered by reinforcements from Iran and Hezbollah.

As one U.S. intelligence official recently told David Ignatius of the Washington Post, “The Syrian regime and its Russian backers have adopted a calculated approach of exacerbating the dire humanitarian situation in Aleppo as a weapon of war.” If successful, Assad and his allies will present the mainstream opposition there with a simple choice: surrender or die.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry Tuesday excoriated Russia during an appearance at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels. “We acknowledge in sorrow, and I have to tell you with a great sense of outrage, that Russia has turned a blind eye to Assad’s deplorable use of…chlorine gas, barrel bombs against his people.” Instead, he said, “Together, the Syrian regime and Russia have rejected diplomacy and chosen instead to continue their pursuit of a military victory over the broken bodies, bombed-out hospitals, and traumatized children of a long-suffering land.”

While this tragedy is overwhelming, it was entirely predictable. This is because President Obama has repeatedly refused to take action to defend the Syrian people from Assad’s brutality.

Indeed, the options that President Obama will consider have been presented to him several times before. In 2012, Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and David Petraeus recommended he provide direct assistant to the rebels fighting the Assad regime. He refused. In 2013, Mr. Obama rejected the advice of his senior military and diplomatic advisors and walked away from his own “red line” after Assad launched a mass chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs. During the vice-presidential debate last night as well as over the past two years, Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) has called on Mr. Obama to establish humanitarian safe zones in Syria. Secretary Clinton has also endorsed this proposal on the campaign trail. Last weekend, Mr. Kerry woefully admitted that he “lost the argument” over the use of force in Syria, pinning blame on “three or four people” who refused to act.

The President has thus far not been moved by atrocities, the recommendations of his cabinet, or common sense proposals from outside of government. So what is different this time? Will Mr. Obama finally share Secretary Kerry’s “great sense of outrage” at the butchery committed by Assad and his allies? Will he be moved by the CIA and Defense Department’s concerns that the fall of Aleppo will undermine their efforts to build an anti-ISIS force within the county’s Sunni population?

The coming months are President Obama’s final opportunity to establish his legacy and set the stage for his successor. If he does not act, his administration will be forever marred by the fall of Aleppo and the bloodshed that catastrophe brings. His successor will be left to deal with an even more dangerous set of Islamist threats.

As The Daily Beast reported Monday, U.S. officials believe that the defeat of the rebel forces in Aleppo will have a ripple-effect throughout the mainstream opposition, leaving them with little alternative but to turn to the Islamist forces for protection and support. As former Obama administration official Frederic Hof wrote in the Washington Post, “The Assad regime is a cause and enabler of the Islamic State.” For years, Assad has shown the Syrian people through his violence that no matter what he does to them, the world will not respond. It is not surprising that many Syrians would rather test their fate with Sunni extremist groups, rather than trust the mercies of such Assad allies as Iran’s Qassem Soleimani, or wait for the United States to come to their assistance.

The President can still act to reverse this trajectory and provide his successor with a more manageable conflict in Syria. The tools available are well known: to ground Assad’s air force, establish a no-fly zone that enables humanitarian assistance, and arm the mainstream opposition. The only reason that the legacy of Mr. Obama’s final months in office should be Aleppo’s complete destruction is if he allows it.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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