Don't Blame Obama for Syria's Catastrophic War

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President Barack Obama pauses while speaking at a meeting with a group of civil rights leaders at the White House in Washington February 18. The idea that Obama could have stopped the bleeding or now has the capacity or obligation to put the Syrian Humpty Dumpty back together is not only wrongheaded; it ignores a number of all too inconvenient realities. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

As a former Middle East negotiator and adviser to secretaries of state of both parties, I've seen and helped contribute to a good many mistakes and failures in U.S. Middle East policy over the years. And there's no doubt in my mind that when the U.S. does err or transgress it adds to rather than diminishes U.S. credibility.

But we can't and shouldn't beat ourselves up unnecessarily, particularly since there are so many at home and abroad just waiting for the opportunity.

And nowhere is this fact more evident than in efforts to hold the Obama administration primarily responsible for the mother of all Middle East catastrophes—the Syrian civil war.

The idea that President Obama could have stopped the bleeding or now has the capacity or obligation to put the Syrian Humpty Dumpty back together is not only wrongheaded; it ignores a number of all too inconvenient realities. Consider these before you indict and sentence the administration.

First, the uprising against the Assad regime and the Syrian civil war that followed didn't happen in a vacuum. Events in Syria were part of broad wave of Arab owned and generated turbulence and fragmentation that swept the Arab world. Indeed, that sense of ownership gave the so-called Arab Spring its legitimacy and power.

The notion that Washington could have crafted an overall strategy to shape significantly this kind of transformation to its advantage, let alone to "get on the right side of history," to use the president's aspirational but meaningless phrase, was patently absurd.

In places where the U.S. had influence—Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen—Washington had little chance of affecting the outcome of authoritarians who had lost any legitimacy and power to govern. In a country like Syria, where the U.S. lacked influence and credibility, it had zero chance.

In fact, if there was any hope for the doomed Arab awakening it was that the movements were internally driven without U.S. or Western fingerprints.

Second, the major responsibility for the horrors visited upon Syria and its people, including the rise of the Islamic State there and the migration crisis, is on Assad, the Syrian regime and his enablers and supporters, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia.

Like Ebola, the Syrian contagion has a patient zero. The fact that the patient survived and has continued to wreak havoc on his people, (including using poison gas, SCUD missiles, barrel bombs, starvation, torture and mass killing of non-combatants, the remainder of the total of an estimated 250,000 killed being rebel and regime fighters), magnifies the enormity of the crime.

Third, that Assad and his supporters are indeed the first order arsonists in the Syrian conflagration isn't just a Captain Obvious throwaway line. It's a fundamental part of the logic chain that leads America's critics for starting to somehowhold the US responsible for starting the fires or at least letting them burn.

The West—and yes, America, too—has been infantilizing the Arabs for decades, believing that somehow we can fix what ails them; solve the Palestinian issue; spread the freedom agenda; transform Iraq; moderate Iran or get rid of the mullahcracy.

Syria is first and foremost a Syrian problem; and an Arab problem, too. Indeed, the Saudis and Gulf states supported the Assads for years, looking at him with a mixture of fear and respect. And of course then there's the 40-year-old strategic bond between Iran and the Assads, driven by Teheran's need for entry into Lebanon and a wall against Sunni encirclement.

Even Turkey, which first thought it could charm Assad, is now more interested in hammering the Kurds than seeing him fall.

And of course there's Mr. Putin, who today more than any other party is responsible for keeping Mr. Assad afloat. Blame the U.S. if you want. But keep in mind when it comes to direct complicity in the Assad's crimes, Washington doesn't belong at the top of the list.

Fourth, America isn't a potted plant. Had it acted sooner in 2012 to arm the rebels; enforce the redline on chemicals; set up a No Fly Zone; deployed its own forces—might not Washington have stopped the crisis or at least lessened its catastrophic consequences?

It's now sadly a counterfactual; we'll never know. But nothing that was proposed during those years went beyond half measures, interim steps or training programs that would have taken time to play out.

Those who reportedly recommended a more muscular policy during the president's first term—Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus and Leon Panetta—were nowhere near proposing the kind of direct military action against the Assad regime that might have altered the battlefield balance; brought him down; or created enough leverage to move him out.

Indeed, no fly zones and safe zones were then and remain now ideas in search of a compelling strategy. The emergence of ISIS all but guaranteed that the U.S. would refrain from attacking Assad directly for fear that his demise or removal by force might open up new opportunities for the jihadis.

Finally, there's little doubt that U.S. policy in Syria has been feckless and too risk-averse. The chorus of Assad must go; the non-enforcement of the red line on chemical weapons; the lapsed and wasted training program, and acquiescing in Russia's air strikes all hurt Washington's believability on Syria.

But instead of attributing these failures to some amorphous abdication of leadership or appeasement, the administration's dysfunction flows more from the absence of good options, limited leverage and painful choices.

Just look the options offered up by the Republican and Democratic candidates for president. What's being offered up is either being done (airstrikes); not feasible (a Sunni army to defeat ISIS/Assad); or a No fly Zone that frankly makes no sense.

Syria—like the Middle East—was never America's to win or lose. And the next new president—R or D, he or she—is likely to face a set of options and choices no better than the old one.

Aaron David Miller is Vice President for New Initiatives and Distinguished Fellow, Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.

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