Why Obama May Have Already Lost Syria

It is difficult to believe that less than 70 hours ago it seemed a sure thing that America would launch strategic missile strikes to weaken Syria’s al-Assad’s regime—the same one that crossed Obama’s red line by murdering more than 1,400 innocents with sarin gas.

Now, just after the U.S. Labor Day holiday, that moment seems like some long-ago lost reality. In earlier posts I have discussed the importance of leadership moments. It now seems, with 20/20 hindsight, that there were far too many moments missed by Obama to save the world from a Middle-Eastern crisis that deepens by the day. Especially since Iran and Russia are two major players determined to undermine the west—countries with leaders whose actions will only complicate and confuse the muddled morass that Syria has become in such a seemingly short time.

But that’s the point. Has it really been a short time? The short answer is “no.” The civil war that has raged in Syria did not start a week ago or a year ago or even two years ago. It began in the Spring of 2011, and it did not take all that long for certain American politicians to recognize the war for what it was: a cancerous, Middle-Eastern crisis that had the ability to light up the Middle East in some tinder-like- box regional war.

Now, in the early days of September 2013, the chances of that stark reality seem more possible than ever.

Let’s look back at what did not happen in the last 30 months to bring us to this leadership moment. Forget 2011, that was only the beginning and no one could imagine that Bashar al-Assad would become a modern- day, Hitler-like ¬†leader on the modern stage. After all, he enjoyed listening to musician Phil Collins and was described by one credible biographer [who met with him on numerous occasions] as a as a geek—a nerd-like leader—certainly not a harsh dictator that would use every weapon in his arsenal to kill and maim thousands of his own citizens.

But—by 2012— a new al-Assad had emerged, the real Bashar al-Assad. That is when two never-shy Republican leaders—Presidential contender John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham—warned Obama and the world to the perils of Syria and al-Assad. They understood that the Syrian conflict was about far more than Syria—it was about Iran—the only Middle-Eastern nation that had the capability of becoming a nuclear country besides Israel. [The Iranian red line is a whole other story—one that now seems more likely to be dealt with by Israel when the time comes].

It was enough for McCain and Graham that Syria had 5,000 Hezbollah fighters backed and financed solely by Iran. They urged the American president to arm the Syrian Free Army. But to Obama—the anti-war president, it wasn’t that simple. There were simply too many factions—including al-qaeda—on the anti al-Assad side of the war. Better not to involve America in a messy and complicated civil war in the worst neighborhood on earth. In retrospect, especially when it seemed that al-Assad was losing, it is clear the United States missed its best chance to level the playing field and tip the balance against al-Assad and his Iranian proxy fighters. But that, too, is “Monday morning quarterbacking,”— after-the-fact analysis.

However, hindsight is not useless when it provides lessons for the future. By arming the right factions fighting against al-Assad, the U.S. could have tipped the scales against him. But the hands-off American leader stayed true to his doctrine and stayed out of it. Even in late 2012 or early 2013 the Syrian war was still not something that rose to the level of U.S. involvement, Obama argued. And that was Obama’s second Syrian miscalculation, but unfortunately, not his last. [it is interesting to note that it was another U.S. president that was always on guard against “miscalculation,” and that was the 35th president, John F. Kennedy. It was a number of correct calculations on his part during those 13 days that saved the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis].

Apparently it did not occur to President Obama that he might have miscalculated. That is, not until his own credibility, after al-Assad used his unthinkable chemical agents—and the credibility of the United States—became the new table stakes in this far-away civil war. Once Obama realized he under-estimated the significance of the Syrian war and the brutal dictator who led it, his first instincts were the right ones. Attack al-Assad as soon as possible—before the regime could prepare and hide key assets in such civilian populated places like hospitals and schools. Show him, Iran, Russia and the rest of the world that al-Assad’s actions would not stand. That was August 31st—when it was thought that at least some sort of limited war would be waged by Obama under the War Powers Act.

But then the other Obama—the anti war Obama— appeared, and mucked up the works in ways that might very well be studied for decades as the flinch that brought the Middle East to its knees. At this point, with so many players, countries and politics in the mix, only time will tell how all will play out on this increasingly dangerous chess board. But the signs are disconcerting at best, and terribly ominous at worst.

Russia has volunteered to send delegates to speak to the American Congress—an unprecedented act as far as I can tell. Iran remains eerily silent, secretly delighting at the inaction of the United States. If the U.S. won’t back up its own red line, they won’t attack us, reason the Iranian leadership. That may or may not be true, and if it is, surely Israel will act. But that is a topic for another day.

For now, the stakes are growing by the day as the American electorate sides with the anti-war Obama. Stay out of it, they argue. Who wants another Iraq? But they are fighting the wrong war at the wrong time, something the world did some 75 years ago, when many underestimated a different leader. to catastrophic results. Despite the two recent wars started by George W. Bush, America has had a history of entering wars reluctantly and too late. The most vivid example of that is World War II. Even though Hitler’s war had already rolled over most of Europe—it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 to get America to enter the war. [Hitler’s war against Jews was well known by that point, but it is lesser known that in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, anti-semitic factions in the U.S. helped to give cover to Roosevelt to stay out of the European conflict].

I fear many outcomes of what appears to be a fairly contained conflict (if you do not take into account the two million refugees that have already exited Syria, nearly a third of its population—with half of that incredible number being children under an average age of 12). The range of thinking in the U.S. Congress on this topic is as fractured as I have ever seen it. Some want to see the details of a comprehensive and strategic plan to bring down a monstrous regime, while others do not want us to go in at all. Most congressional leaders are torn—somewhere in the middle. Even if Obama gets the vote to wage “war,” which I believe he will, it will be such a watered down version of the original document that he will be handcuffed in what he could actually do against Syria, leaving little room for contingency plans if some awful “what-if” scenario plays out in the region [and I believe it will].

And what if the 113th U.S. Congress does what it usually does? [hint: nothing].

What will Obama do then? And what will happen to the U.S. reputation on the world stage? More important, will the conflict in Syria spread to the rest of the Middle East? And how will Russia’s appearance in the Eastern Mediterranean with its state-of-the-art navy hardware play out against the U.S. presence already there? The outcomes are too many to ponder, and none of them are good. Which is what keeps me up at night, writing such verbose pieces about events in far-away lands. It used to be only the health and well-being of my loved ones that kept me up at night…that, and maybe the stock market. Now look at where we are.

However, It is where we might end up, however, that truly scares the living daylights out of me.

Please stay tuned for more in the days ahead.

—-Jeffrey A. Krames, September 3rd, 2013

 

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