A minor kerfuffle has broken out over whether, in a closed-door meeting with an American congressional delegation attending the Munich Security Conference during the first weekend of February, US secretary of state John Kerry acknowledged that the administration’s Syria policy was failing. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham claim that he did; Mr Kerry’s spokeswoman, who was also present, denies it. Whatever the case, the underlying reality is undeniable – President Barack Obama’s Syria policy has failed.
At least 130,000 Syrian civilians have been killed and 9m more have been forced from their homes, making this arguably the worst human rights disaster since Rwanda. The regime of Bashar al-Assad is dropping barrel bombs on civilians in Aleppo and committing other war crimes to remain in power. International investigators recently released photos indicating that at least 11,000 people have been tortured and killed by the regime – more than died at Srebrenica in 1995.
Both Shia and Sunni extremists are exploiting the chaos to make significant inroads while more moderate opposition groups are sidelined. Two leading jihadist groups – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the Nusra Front – are operating freely in northern and eastern Syria. Isis is so extreme that it has been disowned by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, but it is unlikely to be slowed by this censure from faraway Pakistan.
Jim Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, believes there are an estimated 26,000 jihadist fighters in Syria. Some of them are eager to attack America. On the other side, Hizbollah and the Iranian Quds Force, two of the world’s most effective terrorist organisations, have committed hundreds and possibly thousands of fighters to keep Mr Assad in power. Neighbouring states, in particular Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, have been flooded with refugees. Isis fighters now control significant parts of Iraq’s Anbar Province. In Lebanon, Sunni militants are attacking Hizbollah, which is hitting back in a battle of car bombs that threatens to unravel that country’s tenuous peace.
The UN recently convened a conference in Geneva to try to stop the fighting. Mr Kerry just barely succeeded in getting both the Syrian government and the opposition to attend, but the conference broke up with no progress. The regime will not even end its blockade of rebel-held areas, where an estimated 250,000 people are trapped without regular access to food or medicine.
The other centrepiece of the administration’s Syria policy – an agreement, brokered by Russia, to get Assad’s chemical weapons out of the country – is also falling apart. The administration reports that Syria has removed only 4 per cent of its most dangerous chemicals even though all of them were supposed to be gone by December 31.
The Assad regime justifies its delays by citing “security concerns” and claiming it needs more equipment, including armoured cars that could be used to fight the rebellion. But Robert Mikulak, US ambassador to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, says: “These demands are without merit, and display a ‘bargaining mentality’.”
Mr Obama has only himself to blame. By claiming he needed congressional approval for air strikes on Syria, he lifted serious pressure on Damascus to comply with its international obligations. The US failure to do more to arm and train the Free Syrian Army, moreover, has allowed the regime to go on the offensive while the opposition has been riven by infighting.
It is time for Mr Obama to admit that his Syria policy is not working.
No one is suggesting sending ground troops. But options range from doing more to arm the moderate opposition, to declaring a no-fly zone. Drones could strike al-Qaeda operatives in Syria; air power could create humanitarian zones near the Turkish and Jordanian borders. The US could also take the lead in referring Mr Assad and his aides for war crimes prosecution.
The UN Security Council is unlikely to support such steps, but the US would not have to act alone. Allies from France to Saudi Arabia have been urging action and would be eager to co-operate. But they will do little as long as Mr Obama refuses to act. And for the president to act he will first have to acknowledge, if only to himself, how hideously wrong he has been on Syria over the past three years.
The writer is a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations
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