On 13 June 2013, President Obama declared that his Syrian counterpart Assad had crossed a ‘red line’ by the use of chemical weapons against his domestic enemies, and America would, as a consequence, send arms and ammunition to assist the Free Syrian Army attempting to overthrow Assad. Then, following the use of sarin nerve agent in the Ghouta district of the Syrian capital, Damascus, on 21 August 2013, killing 1 400 people, the US president declared on the twelfth anniversary of 9/11 that ‘[o]ur ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used’. He made the case that the US must act when dictators such as the Syrian president ‘brazenly’ violate international treaties intended to protect humanity.67
The red lines, it seemed, had been criss-crossed as the US administration sought to cobble together an international response, ultimately taking the form of a joint plan with the Russians to destroy the estimated 1 000-tonne Syrian chemical weapons stockpile.
Western policy towards Syria had exemplified the primacy of narrow domestic political constituencies over policy, on the one hand, and the disjuncture between pronouncements and policy, on the other hand – put differently, between ‘ends, ways and means’, where domestic politics has trumped strategy. While the West rhetorically has routinely condemned the Assad regime since the outbreak of civil war in 2011 and recognised the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (once the Syrian National Council), they did not provide the support necessary for its military victory. Nor, indeed, did they provide the means to ensure their more liberal interests pervaded over less enlightened strains within the rebels. If the ‘end’ was to remove Assad, the ‘ways’ and ‘means’ would have to reflect that goal. And if the objective was further to ensure a better type of regime came to power, the West would need to not only support those ‘better’ elements where they existed, but ensure their ascendancy.
The ‘means’ would have to be more – much more – than simply the supply of weapons, not least since the rebels had no shortage of these, but rather a dearth of the tactical and technical skills to employ them properly and effectively. It would have to involve influence through training beforehand, over a lengthy duration. It would involve air supremacy – on the ground and in the air – rather than only air superiority over the relatively sophisticated Syrian armed forces. A no-fly zone would be insufficient; one would have to be able to hit group targets in order to have a material impact on the regime’s calculations.68
Above all, such a strategy would demand foresight and vision, where actions could match rhetoric.
The political objectives have to be clear before military and security effort is committed. These objectives have to take into consideration the lack of coherence among opposition groups and equally have to reflect a consensus among allies capable of taking this forward.
The aim of removing Assad was premised on the hope for a better society. But in whose judgement was that assessment being made – Western media, regional actors and rivals, sectarian interests, the Syrian opposition, Syrian Sunnis, minorities? This is not to say that Assad should not have been removed from power. Certainly the regime in Damascus had perpetrated horrific crimes against the civilian population. But were the alternatives to his bloody rule any better in the shape of Jabhat al-Nusra, which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and Ahrar al-Sham?69 For sure the Syrian opposition was not, as Russian President Vladimir Putin tartly put it in response to Obama’s June 2013 red line, men ‘who kill their enemies and eat their organs’, but it encompassed a full spectrum of disparate causes, from moderates fighting to topple the regime to sectarian extremists. If humanitarianism and human rights are the key considerations for intervention, then would the extremist elements observe these niceties any better than Assad? The record in Iraq suggests not.
Nor should the clamour for Assad’s removal have been allowed to drown out a cold (and preferably empirical) assessment of the status of his domestic support base – rather than the volume level of his critics. Such realpolitik was described by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser. Saying he was ‘baffled’ by Mr Obama’s June 2013 decision to become more deeply involved, he asked: ‘What exactly is our objective? It’s not clear to me that every non-democratic government in the world has to be removed by force. The Syria war is a struggle for power, not democracy,’ he said. ‘Is that something we should be engaged in?’
President Obama had, on his assumption to office, vowed to close the Guantanamo detention facility and get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Going to war in Syria has run against his personal grain and America’s mood. The very notion of a ‘red line’ supported the primacy of domestic, political calculations in this decision. But it was a wholly ambiguous criterion. Setting a red line over the killing of 150 people with chemical weapons in June 2013 after more than 90 000 had died in the civil war, smacked of polemic, not policy. This is why, while President Obama was willing to support the rebels post-red line, he was not willing to establish a no-fly zone over Syria, the White House calling it ‘dramatically more difficult and dangerous and costly’ than it had been in Libya in 2011.70 The same dilemma remained, if exaggerated, after the August 2013 chemical weapon attack in Damascus.
The problem is, however, that far-away problems usually do not stay there. The Syria conflict had, by mid-2013, already drawn in Lebanon and Iran on the side of Assad, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey in support of the rebels, while it threatened to destabilise an already wobbly Iraq and vulnerable Jordan. The latter had accepted over 500 000 Syrian refugees by the time of President Obama’s June 2013 declaration, or one-tenth of its population, akin to the US accepting the entire Canadian population. There are other important implications, not least in letting the use of chemical weapons go unpunished as they are against international law. And the criss-crossing of the red lines may also have had an impact on the perceptions of American resolve, as evidenced by the Russian actions on Ukraine in March 2014, and more directly still by the rapid advance of the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in Iraq in June 2014. This is what comes of a doctrinaire foreign policy; simply saying things do not change the facts on the ground.
Politicians willing to pronounce on problems are two a penny. Finding those politicians with the courage, constancy and integrity to not only follow their principled instinct but offer both the determination and necessary means to see them to fruition, indifferent to public opinion, is apparently much more difficult.