Obama’s Syria policy explained

In writing about the pathetic efforts of John Kerry to arrange a cease fire in Syria, I’ve referred to the Secretary of State as the village idiot. But what about President Obama?

Though his intellect may be overrated, he’s anything but an idiot. Obama is, instead, a clever operator who often thinks several moves ahead of his domestic, though not his foreign, adversaries.

Why, then, has U.S. policy paved the way for Assad’s revival, Iranian and Russian success in Syria, and the massacre of up to half a million Syrians?

I’ve come to believe that the answer lies in the Iran nuclear deal. I base this view in part on the great reporting of Jay Solomon for the Wall Street Journal.

For example, Solomon revealed that in 2013, Iran told Obama that if he were to strike the regime of Bashar Assad following the latter’s chemical-weapons attack, the Iranians would end the talks over their nuclear program. Obama duly canceled the strike and later reassured Iran that the United States would not touch Assad.

In my view, Obama’s priority from Day One has been to negotiate a nuclear deal with the mullahs and use the deal as a springboard to a kind of alliance with the their regime under which Iran would “stabilize” the region and the U.S. would basically exit. This desire best explains why Obama’s Syria policy serves Iran’s interests.

My view finds powerful support in a piece in Tablet by Tony Badran of the Federation for Defense of Democracies. Having read Badran’s piece, it seems to me that the pro-Iran tilt manifested in Obama’s Syria policy is even more pronounced than I had suspected.

Badran states his thesis this way:

America’s settled policy of standing by while half a million Syrians have been killed, millions have become refugees, and large swaths of their country have been reduced to rubble is not a simple “mistake,” as critics like Nicholas D. Kristof and Roger Cohen have lately claimed. Nor is it the product of any deeper-seated American impotence or of Vladimir Putin’s more recent aggressions.

Rather, it is a byproduct of America’s overriding desire to clinch a nuclear deal with Iran, which was meant to allow America to permanently remove itself from a war footing with that country and to shed its old allies and entanglements in the Middle East, which might also draw us into war. By allowing Iran and its allies to kill Syrians with impunity, America could demonstrate the corresponding firmness of its resolve to let Iran protect what President Barack Obama called its “equities” in Syria, which are every bit as important to Iran as pallets of cash.

Obama’s intentions should have been evident from the beginning. After all, as Badran points out, “if Obama purposefully took the Iranian regime’s side during the 2009 protests so as not to upset the prospect of rapprochement, he similarly wasn’t about to commit the United States against Iran’s longest-standing strategic ally, Assad.”

But Obama did a great job of masking his pro-Assad tilt and confusing none-too-bright media. Badran writes:

[B]y 2012, criticism of the administration’s policy had grown more vocal, and calls rose to give military support to the Syrian opposition, a proposition the president was always opposed to. As this was a fixed position for Obama, the task before the White House was, therefore, one of public relations—to quiet the calls for supporting the opposition, outside and also within the administration, without doing anything that would actually upset Assad and his patrons in Iran.

Messaging, as always, was of paramount importance to the White House. As the Wall Street Journal reported in early 2013, “White House national security meetings on Syria [in 2012] focused on what participants called ‘strategic messaging,’ how administration policy should be presented to the public.” To that end, the administration started putting out targeted talking points. The administration laid down its now-infamous mantra: There is no military solution in Syria.

Unfortunately, Assad, Iran, and Russia did not share this view — as Obama knew. Thanks to U.S. policy, Assad, Iran, and Russia appear to be right.

Not content with the “no military solution” mantra, Obama added argument that he wanted to avoid “further militarization” of the situation in Syria. Thus Jay Carney stated:

We do not believe that militarization, further militarization of the situation in Syria at this point is the right course of action. We believe that it would lead to greater chaos, greater carnage.

In light of subsequent developments, this statement is obscene, but it was always ridiculous. A no-fly zone would have prevented much of the carnage — and presumably virtually all of carnage rained down from the air — that has occurred since Carney spoke this rubbish several years ago.

But a no-fly zone would have thwarted Iran’s ambitions. Thus, argues Bedran, it was always a non-starter for Obama.

Russia’s presence in the air over Syria provided Obama with an excuse for rejecting a no-fly zone. But, as Badran says, the administration had firmly rejected such action for years before the Russians were anywhere near Syria.

It seems likely that Obama welcomed Russia’s direct intervention since (1) it served Iran’s interests and (2) made it much easier for Obama to defend not taking military action. Indeed, Obama sees Russia as a partner in Syria. According to Bedran, “partnership with Russia is what the White House has sought after since late 2015 and throughout 2016 —with [Robert] Malley as the point man, negotiating directly with the Kremlin’s special envoy. Malley, by the way, is virulently anti-Israel.

The cynicism of Obama’s pronouncements on Syria — his “strip tease” as Badran calls it — is encapsulated by what he and his team have said about Russian intervention in Syria. Initially, the administration’s line was that Russia had made a tragic mistake by becoming involved in a quagmire (never mind that, as we pointed out at the time, its military involvement was limited almost entirely to air strikes). Now, Team Obama argues that Russia holds all the cards in Syria and that our only option is to work with the Kremlim.

Russia and Iran hold all the cards because Obama allowed them to. Badran makes a strong case that Obama allowed them to because because he wants Iran to prevail.

One might admire the elegance of Obama’s “strip tease,” if not for the demise of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and the triumph of our arch-enemy in Tehran.