Frederic C. Hof, director at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, served as a special adviser for transition in Syria at the State Department in 2012. This article was created in collaboration with the Atlantic Council. The views expressed are solely those of the author.
When things go badly for declared U.S. policy in Syria, locals in the region -- regardless of which side they are on -- often conclude that what is declared is really deception: that surely the world's sole superpower cannot be as clueless as it sometimes seems. A group of visiting Lebanese Army officers, commenting on the desultory military campaign against Islamic State in eastern Syria, recently offered the view that Washington wants the terror group to survive. Syrian rebels desperately resisting besiegement in the city of Aleppo no doubt see the collaboration of the American-supported Kurdish PYD militia with Russia and the Assad regime as 'proof' that Washington supports the government of Bashar Assad. Locals find it hard to believe that what happens in Syria does not reflect American intent.
In truth, the ongoing disaster in Syria reflects a host of factors. Washington's intent is not among them. Yes, President Barack Obama really does want Assad to step aside in a choreographed political transition. Yes, the president really meant it when he vowed in 2014 to degrade and destroy ISIS. But other things got in the way. They still do.
It is unlikely that President Obama would be in the position today of not having defended one single Syrian civilian from the Assad regime’s brutal tactics were it not for Iran’s involvement in the war. Fear that complicating Assad's murderous rampage with modest military means would offend Tehran and nix the nuclear negotiations stayed the president's hand. Keeping Iran on board with the deal reached last year continues to do so. Now, Russian intervention offers another excuse for looking the other way as civilians in their homes, hospitals, schools, bakeries, and mosques are deliberately targeted and obliterated, all for the recruiting benefit of ISIS.
Many Syrians and others in the region believe Washington's indifference reflects its intent: that the administration is looking for a way to ratify diplomatically Moscow's successful military intervention so that common cause can be made with Russia and the regime against Islamic State. Those who believe this should consider President Obama’s 2014 remarks in Brisbane, Australia, at the G20 press conference:
Certainly no changes have taken place with respect to our attitude towards Bashar al-Assad. And I’ve said this before, but let me reiterate: Assad has ruthlessly murdered hundreds of thousands of his citizens, and as a consequence has completely lost legitimacy with the majority of the country. For us to then make common cause with him against ISIL would only turn more Sunnis in Syria in the direction of supporting ISIL, and would weaken our coalition that sends a message around the region this is not a fight against Sunni Islam, this is a fight against extremists of any stripe who are willing to behead innocent people or kill children, or mow down political prisoners with the kind of wanton cruelty that I think we’ve very rarely seen in the modern age.
No doubt there are officials in the Obama administration who think the issue of Assad’s criminality -- wanton war crimes and crimes against humanity -- should be soft-pedaled in the hope that the head of Syria’s premier crime family might be induced to share or yield power through negotiations. No doubt Russian diplomats counsel American counterparts to go easy on the crime angle; in addition to protecting a client they have a strong interest in whitewashing Moscow’s deliberate targeting of Syrian civilians.
Fortunately, the American commander in chief has spoken definitively on the matter. There will be no common cause with Assad, period. And although Obama will not interfere with his secretary of state’s quest for a negotiated settlement, he knows that someone will have to compel the Assad family and its entourage to cooperate: war criminals correctly see power-sharing as the slippery slope toward accountability. And that ‘someone’ will not, due to Iran’s support of Assad, be the United States.
Would Iran bolt from the nuclear deal if Syrian rebels received the means to protect populations from air attacks? Would Tehran really spurn the economic benefits of nuclear détente if an occasional volley of cruise missiles against regime air bases dissuades the dictator from mass murder? The view here is no: Tehran sees merit and self-interest in the nuclear deal. It negotiated the nuclear agreement while pursuing a policy in Syria aimed principally at securing the regional position of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, a terrorist gang no stranger to targeting Americans. Iranians understand how to categorize and segregate policies dispassionately; Americans create self-paralyzing, false linkages.
If the Iranian aspect of the Syrian crisis has been overthought in Washington, so too has the battle against ISIS. The descendent of al-Qaeda in Iraq found sanctuary in Syria courtesy of Assad’s bloody bid to retain control of the country. From its ‘capital’ in Raqqa, Islamic State sustains operations in Iraq and executes mass terror incidents in Europe: atrocities it hopes to replicate in North America.
A combination of coalition air attacks and ground maneuvers by a predominantly Kurdish militia has damaged ISIS in Syria. A professional ground force -- U.S.-led with regional, European, and American units -- could finish the Syrian wing of this monstrosity quickly. But justifications for inaction are legion: Only indigenous ground forces should be permitted to do the job; beating these people in Syria will just encourage the survivors to go elsewhere; closing with and killing the ersatz ‘caliph’ and his co-conspirators only plays into their ‘crusader’ propaganda; there is no one prepared to administer eastern Syria once ISIS is destroyed.
This is self-defeating excuse-making; some of it self-realizing. What exactly has the United States done to strengthen the Syrian opposition since it first recognized the Syrian National Council in 2011 as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people? Still, the administration would immediately disregard its own excuses if ISIS were to carry out a mass atrocity in the United States like those recently seen across Europe.
Syria is at the core of an international crisis, one roiling the domestic politics of U.S. allies in ways that give aid and comfort to a Russian leader eager to defeat NATO and dismember the European Union. Syrians and others in the region think America understands this. They cannot believe that Washington’s failure to halt Assad’s mass murder – terrorism of a different variety that sustains other terrorists -- and its go-slow campaign against ISIS merely reflect indecision and loss of self-confidence. This is not the America they thought they knew. They choose to see design, and in this they are wrong. But Assad, with Russian and Iranian connivance, continues to conduct mass murder. And ISIS continues to dodge bombs from the air and Kurds on the ground. Being wrong analytically does not make one blind or immune to the consequences of what the United States has done, and failed to do, in Syria.