Sunday,15 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)
Sunday,15 July, 2018
Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Gasualties of Obama’s Syria policy

Hundreds of thousands have died as a result of the US Obama administration’s leaden-footed inaction in the Syrian conflict, writes Jett Goldsmith

Al-Ahram Weekly

Nearly 500,000 people have died and 11.4 million have been displaced as a result of the Syrian Civil War, one of the bloodiest and most brutal conflicts in modern history. Syria had 21.5 million inhabitants in 2010, according to statistics from the World Bank. Now, over 50 per cent of those 21.5 million have seen their homes and livelihoods destroyed, and many have seen their friends and family killed.

Many of those killed and displaced in Syria’s Civil War, in fact the majority, according to data compiled by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), an NGO, were victims of indiscriminate regime airstrikes on the civilian population. Since 2011, the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has been the primary actor in the commission of what the World Policy Institute has classified as genocide.

The list of casualties attributed to actions by the Al-Assad regime is long, and attempts to quantify the atrocities have led to a 20,000-page compilation of data including barrel-bomb attacks, kidnappings, rape, torture and civilian executions. The crimes which stand out most are detailed in the so-called Caesar Files, which document nearly 11,000 instances of dead detainees kidnapped and imprisoned by regime mukhabarat (security police) and displaying signs of torture and brutalisation.

The brutal nature of the Syrian regime can also be seen in the Ghouta attack of 21 August 2013, when a Syrian army brigade launched rockets loaded with sarin gas, an internationally prohibited nerve agent, into civilian areas in an eastern suburb of Damascus leading to at least 4,000 casualties and the deaths of at least 426 children.

Many, including US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers and US NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) director Kenneth Roth have attributed much of this so-called genocide to the inaction of the Obama administration.

This is a controversial opinion, but it is one supported by assessments by swaths of Syria watchers and policymakers from independent analysts documenting the ongoing conflict to the academic establishment of major foreign-policy think-tanks to those within the Obama administration itself. A significant number of those within the US government hold the belief that the Obama administration’s leaden-footed inaction in taking steps to prevent genocide have contributed to Syria’s deteriorating security situation and the continued perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

US President Barack Obama himself sparked outrage when he reneged on his 2012 “red line,” which amid worrying reports of chemical weapons use in Syria set the continued use of such weapons against civilians as a threshold that would prompt action from the US.

But after the 2013 Ghouta attack, the Obama administration pursued a path of cooperation with the Al-Assad regime and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which monitors compliance with international law regarding chemical weapons. The regime agreed to destroy its existing chemical weapons stockpiles and remove the capability by which it could produce new chemical warheads.

However, chemical weapons use in Syria continued, and in July 2016 OPCW chief Ahmet Uzumcu pressured the Al-Assad regime to explain why it had four undeclared chemical warfare agents still present in its stockpile.

The tragedy taking place in Syria cannot be directly attributed to US inaction, nor would a simple demand for direct military intervention necessarily be enough to stop the deterioration of security in the country and the commission of large-scale killings as the US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown. Instead, much of the tragedy in Syria can be attributed to the half-measures of US policy, a result of Obama’s refusal to directly commit support to this besieged nation.

The CIA has pursued a provision programme of TOW anti-tank missiles to a lengthy list of vetted, often opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA)-associated rebel groups in Syria, but on the condition that the rebels could not use those missiles in Damascus lest they lose their US backing. The CIA and the US Department of Defence have provided operational and logistical support for rebel groups by establishing joint operations rooms for rebel factions, but they have neutered those groups’ effectiveness on the battlefield by imposing strict limits on what action they can take and where they can launch offensives.

However, the United States has refused to provide air support for groups fighting against regime and allied forces. The Syrian air force and the Russian air force are the only parties in Syria with air power, and this gives them an outsized advantage over the exclusively ground-based rebel opposition groups, leading the latter to heavy reliance on suicide bombers.

“The problem is that the United States Syria policy was handicapped from the start,” Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East in the US, said. “The premise of every approach taken in Syria was that the United States would not involve itself in the conflict on any meaningful level. All other US positions were shaped around a decision which was already taken, in spite of, and not because of, the war’s specific attributes.”


INTERNAL DISORDER: The widespread sentiment among those with knowledge of Syria is that US failure to take committed and effective action in the country has created an environment in which crimes against humanity may be perpetrated with impunity.

Nowhere more visible are the casualties of the Obama administration’s noncommittal, ineffectual policy in Syria than within the Obama administration itself. Former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was the first high-profile casualty of the Obama administration’s Syria policy. Ford is a career diplomat who entered the US foreign service in 1985 and has since overseen critical aspects of US policy in the Middle East, including as deputy chief of mission to Bahrain from 2001 to 2004 and counsellor to the US embassy in Baghdad from 2004 to 2008.

In 2010, Ford was confirmed as US ambassador to Syria by consensus in the US Senate. He served in this position during the Arab Spring and amid the outbreak of protests in Syria. Ford took the initiative of being vocally supportive of the Syrian uprising, and in July 2011 he visited the city of Hama where anti-regime demonstrators draped his vehicle with flowers and olive branches in signs of solidarity with his role in speaking out against the Al-Assad regime’s brutal crackdowns that had led to the deaths of thousands of protesters.

This open support of the Syrian Revolution drew ire from the regime, which broadcast false reports on state-run television blaming Ford for the formation of anti-government death squads. Soon afterwards, the US government pulled Ford out of the country, with then state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland blaming the regime for incitement which had threatened his safety. “We are concerned about a campaign of regime-led incitement targeted personally at ambassador Ford by the state-run media of the government of Syria, and we are concerned about the security situation that that has created,” Nuland said.

After the outbreak of the armed conflict in Syria, Ford became instrumental in negotiating talks between the opposition groups and the largely external political opposition to participate in the Geneva Process which sought to end the bloody conflict and remove Al-Assad from power. But the talks broke down, and in 2014 Ford announced his retirement in a protest at the stagnation of US policy in Syria.

Ford’s outspoken role in supporting democratic rebellion against the Syrian state drew ire from regime supporters and protests from other Arab regimes that feared they could be next in line for a popular uprising. Ford, who has largely avoided the public eye since stepping down from his post at the State Department, gave a rare interview to the US network PBS several months after his retirement. In speaking to PBS foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner, Ford said he could “no longer defend” the Obama administration’s policy in Syria.

“The efforts we’ve made to date have not worked,” Ford said. “We have not put enough pressure on the regime on the ground, and that’s why the peace talks we tried to do in Geneva [have failed]. The regime completely refused to discuss a political settlement. The policy has not brought them to the point where they feel like they have to negotiate. They’re not under enough pressure.”

When asked why he had retired from his position at the state department even after exiting the country in 2012 amid fears over the safety of embassy staff, Ford cited the “stagnation” of US policy on the ground. “In the end, I worked from Washington on the Syria issue for two years. Events on the ground were moving, and our policy was not evolving very quickly. We were constantly behind the curve [...] Finally, I got to the point where I could no longer defend it publicly. As a professional career member of the US diplomatic service, when I can no longer defend the policy in public, it is time for me to go,” he said.

Ford now serves as a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in the US and tweets from an inconspicuous personal account largely shielded from the public eye. But in June 2016, he sat down with the US New Yorker magazine to comment on the latest casualties of Obama’s policy in Syria: 51 US State Department dissenters who had leaked their outspoken protest to the media and in doing so had committed career suicide.

“Frustration at the state department has come to a boil. People don’t write in the Dissent Channel every day. The cessation of hostilities in Syria has broken down completely. The bombings of hospitals in Aleppo and Idlib are a violation of every human norm, and that’s not including the barrel-bombs and the chemical weapons. The effort to get a political deal is going nowhere. The Al-Assad government has refused to make any serious concessions. It won’t let in food aid, in violation of UN resolutions. And the Americans are watching it all happen. So the Dissent Channel message is a reflection of frustration by the people who are responsible for conducting policy on the ground. I felt that way when I left,” Ford said.


DISSENTERS: In June 2016, the US newspaper the New York Times received a draft of an official state department dissent memo that utilised 2 FAM 072, a policy channel set up during the Vietnam War for dissenting diplomats to express their disagreements with US policy. Despite the Dissent Channel’s origins as a way of protesting against US military action in Vietnam, the 51 unnamed dissenters used the channel for a different route: To protest against military inaction in Syria.

“We are the state department officers who have been involved in the US government’s response to the Syria crisis in varying capacities over the past five years,” the memo read. “Despite the secretary of state’s efforts to de-escalate the violence and forge ahead with the political track, we believe that achieving our objectives will continue to elude us if we do not include the use of military force as an option to enforce the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) and compel the Syrian regime to abide by its terms as well as to negotiate a political solution in good faith. Al-Assad’s systematic violations against the Syrian people are the root cause of the instability which continues to grip Syria and the broader region.”

The memo is measured, and it notes that the 51 state department officials do not see a large-scale US invasion of Syria as an appropriate option to bring an end to the conflict. Instead, the officials argue for the judicious use of “stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focussed and hardnosed US-led diplomatic process, leveraging the International Syrian Support Group to end the daily mass killing of civilians and egregious violations of human rights.”

Despite the dissenters’ actions in leaking the memo to the New York Times, ostensibly to avoid the dismissal of their concerns by the Obama administration, the US has taken no further action to step up its pressure on the Al-Assad regime. But the memo has left a lasting impact on public discussion of Syria and a permanent scar on Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

In responding to the leaked memo, US Secretary of State John Kerry hinted, however subtly, at his true views towards the administration’s Syria policy. “It’s an important statement, and I respect the process, very, very much.”

Meanwhile, Frederic Hof lasted only six months before he was struck by the tragedy of Syria. He was appointed by Obama as a special adviser for transition in Syria in March 2012 and stepped down from his post in September that same year. He had worked tirelessly to bring about a detente between Syria and its neighbours since 2009, but in 2011 his role transitioned to halting Al-Assad’s brutality at home.

“When I resigned my state department post as adviser on Syrian political transition to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I knew that Syria was plunging into an uncharted abyss, a humanitarian abomination of the first order,” wrote Hof in a 2015 editorial for Politico Magazine in the US. “I knew that the White House had little appetite for protecting civilians (beyond writing cheques for refugee relief) and little interest in even devising a strategy to implement President Barack Obama’s stated desire that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad step aside.”

Like Ford, Hof is a lifelong Arabist. He was first exposed to Syria as a US teenage foreign-exchange student, and he graduated from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in 1969 before joining the US army as a Middle East specialist. His list of US military accomplishments include a Purple Heart, a Superior Service Medal, and an outspoken role in drafting the Long Commission Report that investigated the 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Beirut.

Throughout his career, Hof has been forthright about what he views as “Iran’s penetration of the Arab world.” But in 2012, as Hof undertook a larger position in the settlement of Syria’s chaos and amid an ever-expanding Iranian role to keep Al-Assad in power and further perpetuate Iran’s geopolitical aims, his hopes for a stable Middle East eroded.

“When Kerry launched his latest Syrian peace initiative last October in the wake of Russia’s military intervention,” he wrote in March this year, “I warned that the objective might be process without end: A bridge of empty talk over Syria’s troubled water to January 20, 2017, and one enabling the administration to leave office without having protected a single Syrian in Syria from Al-Assad’s murder machine.”

Hof now serves as director of the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East in the US and writes frequently on the Syria situation. 

But as the Atlantic Council’s Itani said, for the Middle East, for Europe and for the world, there appears to be no end in sight to the conflict in Syria. “As it turned out, Syria has become a disgrace to the international community. We’ll never know what would have happened had the US engaged with the opposition, pressured Al-Assad, or done anything else. But the fact is this was never given any consideration in the first place. A position was taken, evidence was either ignored or spun, and external expertise was actively ridiculed,” he said.

The writer is a US journalist working in Denver, Colorado.

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