The Syria Coalition — the non-jihadist Syrian rebels whose requests for help President Obama has largely blown off for years — has issued a statement ascribing “much of the responsibility” for James Foley’s execution to the United States for “not react[ing] to the Assad regime’s repeated crossing of the red lines it had drawn and warned against crossing.” You can read the reasoning here.
How fair is the Syria Coalition’s charge? As I understand it, Foley initially fell into the hands of forces loyal to the Assad regime. This occurred in November 2012.
How did Foley wind up with ISIS? Either ISIS captured him from Assad’s military or Assad’s military handed him over to ISIS. Given the extent of cooperation between Assad and ISIS, I would probably bet on the latter scenario.
To the extent the Syria Coalition’s charge focuses on “red lines,” the question is, had Obama taken military action in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, would Foley not have been executed. Given the facts surrounding Foley’s abduction and chain of custody, the answer, I think, is that Obama’s response, or lack thereof, probably had no effect on Foley’s fate.
The more interesting question is whether Obama’s refusal to attack Assad’s assets even after he used chemical weapons contributed to the rise of ISIS. Superficially, the answer would seem to be no. Presumably, weakening Assad would not have weakened ISIS. (Some have argued that it would have strengthened ISIS, though given the odd symbiotic relationship between the two, that argument is questionable).
But I contend that when Obama backed down, he delivered a victory not just to Assad, but to ISIS and all other jihadist rebel groups. Why? Because with that decision, Obama undercut the non-jihadist rebels.
The warring factions in Syria all rely on foreign support. Assad relies on Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah. The various jihadist rebel groups rely on various Arab countries (though ISIS now seems well on the road to self-sufficiency).
The non-jihadist Syria Coalition has tried to rely on the United States. When Obama backed down after threatening military action against Assad, he confirmed what the players in Syria had long suspected — that the U.S. was not a reliable supporter and that the Syria Coalition was thus a marginal player.
Accordingly, as I said at the time, Obama dealt a serious blow to the non-jihadist opposition to Assad. And by doing so, Obama advanced the interests of jihadist groups like ISIS.
The bitter words of the Syria Coalition reflect the extent of the blow Obama dealt by not following through on his “red line” related threats. They also reflect years of frustration with the administration’s overall lack of support.
As Noah Rothman points out, it isn’t exactly in the interests of the Syria Coalition to seize upon the Foley execution as a basis for lambasting Obama when it’s still hoping (perhaps realistically, for the first time) that the U.S. will finally take military action inside Syria.
But Obama has let these people down too many times for them to pull any punches now. The Foley connection they attempt to draw is attenuated. But Obama’s contribution to the rise of ISIS is direct and, in my view, indisputable.