The Syria "What If" That May Haunt Obama
AP Photo/ Evan Vucci
The Syria "What If" That May Haunt Obama
AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

W. Robert Pearson is a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and is currently a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. This piece has been published in collaboration with the Institute. The views expressed are solely those of the author.

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On Aug. 21, 2013, the Syrian government murdered more than 1,400 innocent Syrians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta -- including several hundred children -- in a nerve gas attack. What if the United States had decisively dealt with the Assad government after its chemical weapons attack? It certainly would have been a defining moment for every major participant -- Syria, Russia, Turkey, and the United States. That deadly attack and its aftermath may have profoundly affected U.S.-Turkey relations and the fate of the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo.

Rewind one year, to August 2012, and recall that it was President Barack Obama who said "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

Syrian warplanes were nonetheless back in the air three weeks after the nerve gas attack. Facing opposition in Congress over an airstrike and some hesitation among its allies, the United States had welcomed a Russian proposal to negotiate the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal. Syria’s regime had escaped unscathed, and Russia had seized the diplomatic momentum on the Syrian issue.

It is difficult to gainsay President Obama’s decision. He had inherited two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that he was trying to end. A third military campaign in Libya had seemingly ended in October 2011 with the capture and killing of former leader Moammar Gadhafi, only to be marred by postwar instability and the 2012 murder in Benghazi of Ambassador Chris Stevens. Since 2006, Washington and its P5+1 partners had been negotiating on a nuclear weapons agreement with Iran, and the president wanted that process to continue. Even so, Israel and some members of Congress seemed to prefer a new war with the Islamic Republic of Iran. That would be three wars fought and two more contemplated for the United States in the Middle East within a single decade.The first two alone had cost Americans up to an estimated $6 trillion, approximately one-third of the country’s annual GNP. The United States was in the midst of its worst economic downturn in 80 years and was facing a long, slow recovery. Finally, and importantly, most Americans were in no mood for another war. By a strict calculation of the pros and cons, the answer looked clear -- stay out of it.

However, Obama could have grounded the Syrian air force through pinpoint targeting, including by cratering runways, without large loss of life or collateral damage. The president could have shown that he understood very well the unique and moral role of the United States in international affairs. Against such American leadership, Syria could not have carried on its relentless air campaign, and Russia when deciding on its options would have been faced with a pre-emptive American move. U.S. policymakers could have then invited Russia to join Washington in seeking an end to the war, thereby maintaining a position of strength sufficient to convert the Syrian strike into an international effort to reach a settlement.

What actually followed is well-documented history. Seeing Washington’s strategic pause, within seven months of August 2013 Russia moved in March 2014 to occupy Crimea and then eastern Ukraine. Russia then entered the Syrian civil war militarily in September 2015, reversing the course of the conflict. Two months later, the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey precipitated a war of words between Moscow and Ankara and significant economic loss for Turkey. Russia has now begun the process of resetting its relationship with Turkey, with the possible strategy of doling out economic favors to Ankara in exchange for more closely aligned views on Syria and on NATO’s role in the eastern reach of the alliance.

Turkey was deeply disappointed and frustrated by the American decision of August 2013. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had even called for a full intervention -- a Kosovo-style operation -- to rid Syria of Assad. For Turkey, August 2013 marked the beginning of the end for its stated goals in Syria:

  • By the end of 2013, the refugee flow from Syria to Turkey was nearing 1 million, and some already were fleeing to Europe. Today there are 2.7 million refugees in Turkey, the equivalent of 8 to 10 million refugees in the United States.
  • Ankara’s determined push for a no-fly zone to be enforced by the U.S. came to naught.
  • In 2014, rumors surfaced of large movements of ISIS fighters travelling to Syria via Turkey. ISIS began capturing towns in Syria in late 2013 and seized Raqqa in January 2014.
  • Two costly efforts by the United States to train moderate opposition fighters collapsed in complete embarrassment.
  • Washington turned to the Kurds in 2014, who rapidly became America’s best allies in the country, infuriating Turkey.
  • The United States, concluding that the Turks were entrenched in unattainable war aims, deepened their talks with Moscow, implying the likely survival of Assad for any postwar regime.

The seeming slowness of the United States in condemning the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey, coupled with rhetorical American missteps that implied to Ankara that Washington was more worried about Turkish generals than Turkish democracy may have helped confirm Turkish doubts about the overall U.S. concern about Ankara’s dilemmas. With the chance to simultaneously pressure America on Turkey’s extradition request for U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen and on military cooperation in Syria, as well as recoup sharp economic losses, Mr. Erdogan leaped at the opportunity to show up in St. Petersburg on Aug. 9.

Needless to say, Moscow will be interested in what Turkey is willing to offer in return for its favors. Movement on Syria along the lines of Russia’s war aims will figure prominently in the discussions Turkey and Russia will have. Iran has now begun to press its own “friendship” diplomacy with Turkey.

Would the consequences have been different if the United States had taken military action in August 2013? Could the decision three years ago have actually magnified harm to American interests today? Might the United States and Turkey have found more common ground? Leadership is not only about deciding what is specifically best for you; it’s also about visualizing the result and using all the tools available to push in that direction with friends and opponents. Events over the last three years may offer us a cautionary tale on the consequences of what happens after nothing happens. “Ex nihilo nihil fit” does not hold true in international affairs.