Lee Smith’s The Consequences of Syria is part of the Hoover Institution’s “The Great Unravelling” series, which also included The Struggle for Mastery in the Fertile Crescent by the late Fouad Ajami (which I reviewed here.)
Published in June 2014, Smith narrates Syria’s terrible war to the opening months of 2014, the innumerable excuses made by the Obama administration for letting it run, and the theoretical framework behind the administration’s decision. The book is relatively short and the prose is direct; it takes very complex discussions of ideas and puts them in easily-digestible terms—all while keeping the reader’s eye on the practical implications.
Smith starts with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the central event in President Obama’s thinking about the Middle East. Obama looked at Syria and saw Iraq; he never gave Syria due consideration on her own terms. Obama would insist that the only policy options in Syria were: do nothing or an Iraq-style ground war. Obama knew public-opinion was against a redo of Iraq because he kept telling them how war-weary they were.
Obama initially ascribed his inaction in Syria to Israel’s desire for the devil she knows in Assad—an interesting borrowing from the Arabs’ playbook of blaming Israel first. Once this was publicly falsified by senior Israeli officials in June 2011, it was on to the next.
Assad had mighty air defences, it was said; in reality the air defence systems cannot be turned on lest they give away their position and get obliterated by Israel. (Israel of course breezes past these mighty defences at will, including apparently last night.)
One of Obama’s big excuses for doing nothing was that all the rebels were al-Qaeda, and nobody wants to be al-Qaeda’s air force. This was absurd, Smith writes, and even many of the “Islamists” only grew beards and shouted Islamist slogans to keep the Gulf spigot turned on because the U.S. refused to help. (A point borne out in academic research: see here and here.)
But still the propaganda went on. “It was Assad’s own messaging campaign—Al Qaeda or me—that became the White House’s most effective theme to rationalize its … decision not to arm the rebels,” Smith writes, and of course Assad would use the Salafi-jihadist assets he’d built up to bloody the Americans in Iraq to help make his narrative a reality on the ground.
This was significantly helped by Christian Assadists in the West, who recruited prominent media and political allies, such as Rand Paul, in saying that Assad’s fall would lead to the minorities being massacred. Assad advanced this line after 9/11 to present himself as an ally in the War on Terror. It worked for a while, too.
But in truth the sectarianism was coming from the regime side. A subtle argument Smith makes is that the Syrian uprising and the sectarian colourings it would take on began with Assad’s counterstroke to his expulsion from Lebanon in 2005: Assad activated Alawi assets in Lebanon, licensed the blood of senior Lebanese Sunni politicians, and inside Syria shrank the regime down to the Alawite clans, the Assads and the Makhloufs, where previously Hafez al-Assad had used a “Sunni loyalist elite“—individual Sunni military commanders and the Sunni bourgeoisie of Damascus and Aleppo—to “obscur[e] the blatant sectarianism of the regime.”
Obama laid down a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in August 2012, but responded only with a messaging campaign of denial when Assad started using them in December 2012. Finally, in August 2013, Assad deployed Sarin nerve agent in the Ghouta suburbs around Damascus, slaughtering 1,400 people. Obama said Assad would pay a price, then threw the matter to Congress. As Smith puts it, in Congress Obama found himself fighting his own messaging campaign—that the rebellion was al-Qaeda, that tens of thousands of American ground troops would be needed to do anything in Syria, and that Americans were war-weary—which virtually ensured he would lose the attempt to gain an authorization for the use of force he never needed in the first place.
Facing humiliation in Congress, Vladimir Putin came to Obama’s aid with a “deal” that relegitimized Assad as a partner in the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons—something Assad of course would never do (as shown again yesterday) because his usefulness would then be at an end—gave the dictator a “license to kill with conventional weapons,” made America an accomplice to Assad’s campaigns of atrocity, and made Putin the indispensable actor in the Middle East.
By the end of 2013, even after Obama purged his Cabinet of all non-dovish elements after 2012, only Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and the President opposed arming the rebels. Turning to realpolitik, “McDonough, who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, … argued that the status quo in Syria could keep Iran pinned down for years,” New York Times investigation cited by Smith reported. McDonough later “suggested that a fight in Syria between Hezbollah and Al Qaeda would work to America’s advantage”.
Leaving aside the cruelty of McDonough’s suggestion, just focus on the stupidity of it: here was a man who argued that allowing the fighting to drag on, making al-Qaeda the leader of one side and the Khomeini’ist tributaries of the Iranian theocracy the leader of the other, would reduce, rather than swell, the ranks of the extremists as those trapped in the middle had to find protection.
In the summer of 2013, and then again during Ghouta debate, Sarah Palin explained her Syria policy: “Let Allah sort it out”. This Sarah Palin Doctrine (to borrow from Michael Doran) was, as with Obama’s zero-sum messaging that money spent helping Arabs was money taken from “nation-building at home,” heavily tinged with xenophobia. The line between isolationism and bigotry was thin, but Obama adopted the policy and called it “progressive”.
Smith concedes a “fundamental error”—which many of us made—in concluding early-on that Obama wasn’t acting in Syria because of a lack of strategic vision. Obama, like his critics, did see Syria in the larger context of Iran, and precisely for that reason Obama would do nothing to weaken Assad.
In the early days of his administration, Obama had called off the ideological assault on the Assad regime. Damascus was back to its old perch as a quiet favourite of the State Department, not least because of John Kerry, who was “captivated by the ‘Westernized’ Syrian president and his stylish first lady.” At that time the idea was for a “Syria track” to a solution in former Mandate Palestine, but Assad and the Islamic State (ISIS) threat he spawned would assume a place altogether more ambitious in President Obama’s calculations.
Obama’s primary intention in the Middle East was to “end” the wars he inherited (get the U.S. troops out anyway), avoid further entanglements, and significantly reduce America’s role in the region. To do that, “Obama hopes to create a new regional security architecture,” Smith writes, which provides “geopolitical equilibrium” between traditional American partners like Saudi Arabia and Israel, and adversaries like Iran and Russia.
It is now widely known that Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan was leading secret negotiations with Iran in Oman from July 2012, which led to the six-month “interim” nuclear agreement with Iran in November 2013 that is still going, and there is no doubt this was among the reasons Obama stood back from the strikes against Assad in 2013. This also explains why Obama wouldn’t help the Syrian rebellion.
The nuclear agreement is the means by which Iran will be drawn into the regional security architecture, which means the priority is keeping them at the table; to do that Iran must be kept happy. Put simply, Obama made Syria an Iranian sphere of influence for the sake of what one of his aides recently called a “game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord”.
Where Sunni terrorism is a sign of the decay of the Sunni States, Smith writes, Obama sees Shi’ite terrorism as a function of Iran’s strength and coherence: “From this point of view, if you can make a deal with the Iranians, you can take Hezbollah off the board; there’s no similar command and control for Al Qaeda.” This idea that Iran can or will rein-in its terrorists is dubious in the extreme: terrorism isn’t something the Islamic Republic of Iran does; it is something the Islamic Republic is. Iran’s is a terrorist regime, seeing the violence it exports as its holy mission to bring its revolution to others. If Iran stops terrorism and expansionism it will only be because the revolution has ended—which is to say the regime has fallen.
Obama’s attempt for détente with Iran is not new. Indeed it goes back to before 1979, when the twin pillars of America’s regional presence were Saudi Arabia and Iran. Moreover, chunks of the foreign policy elite have seen rapprochement with Iran as a tantalizing prospect that will unlock all kinds of positives for American interests. But this neglects the consideration of the nature of Iran’s regime.
Obama’s policy in Syria has opened the way for an Iranian march across the region, from Syria to Iraq to Lebanon—and Iran’s attempt to extend its Imperium to Yemen is now being forcibly contested by a Saudi-led coalition. Not only is the Obama administration not checking Iran, but it is helping Iran, most notably with airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. In the nuclear negotiations, Iran has secured concessions that will make it a threshold nuclear-weapons State by the end of Obama’s term in office. And as this violence spirals in the region it is drawing in Western holy warriors, some of whom have already returned home to do jihad, including in America, to say nothing of the effects on the supply of energy for America’s most important allies.
The effects of Obama’s policy will be with us long into the future. For an explanation of how it began, Smith’s book is a great place to start.