With more than 80,000 people killed and more than a million Syrian refugees having fled to neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, the United States appears to be standing idly by, hoping that an international conference, co-sponsored with Russia, will solve the problem. This is an idle hope.
The longer the U.S. waits to take action, the worse the results will be for the U.S. position in the Middle East.
When the Syrian revolution erupted in 2011, the Obama Administration hoped the Assad regime would fall like those of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. When this did not happen, Barack Obama was deep into his second presidential election campaign. Asserting that he was the president who got the U.S. out of Iraq and was getting the U.S. out of Afghanistan, President Obama made it clear he had no interest in committing U.S. forces to protecting Syrian rebel positions. He did, however, proclaim unspecified action if Assad used chemical weapons.
A number of administration officials called for robust action to help the rebels. Their arguments were as follows: A humanitarian disaster was occurring in Syria, and the U.S. had a moral obligation to stop it; the fall of the Assad regime and its replacement by a moderate Sunni regime would strike a major blow at Iran and Hezbollah; the longer the U.S. waited to provide aid to moderate Sunni opposition forces, the more likely that radical Islamist forces would seize control of the Syrian opposition; and the easy penetration of Syrian air space by Israeli warplanes indicated that it would not require a major U.S. effort to overcome the weak Syrian air defenses.
Still, Obama refused to take action, even after Assad crossed Obama’s self-proclaimed “red line” by using chemical weapons. Instead, Obama sent Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with U.S. allies to coordinate increased aid to the Syrian opposition, aid such as Meals Ready to Eat for the Syrian rebels.
The opposition was clearly disappointed by the lack of U.S. action and became increasingly concerned when Hezbollah forces left Lebanon to join the Assad forces. The U.S. response was to join with Russia to call for an international conference to solve the Syrian
conflict. This is while Russia was stepping up its military aid to Assad, including the supply of SAM-300 ground-to-air missiles, which would not only strengthen Syria’s air defenses, but also enable it to control the airspace over Israel.
Kerry’s efforts to get Assad to change his calculations backfired. The U.S. effort to convene an international conference was just another effort to delay any serious U.S. aid to the rebels.
The U.S.’ lack of action has weakened its position in the Mideast. Now U.S. threats to take action against Iran’s nuclear weapons program are less credible. The result may be that Israel, which has already threatened to take action if the Russian SAM-300s are
installed in Syria, may be forced to take unilateral action against Iran. The end result will be a much more dangerous Middle East, for which President Obama will be directly responsible.
Dr. Robert O. Freedman is the Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Baltimore Hebrew University and Visiting Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is “Israel And The United States: Six Decades Of Relations” (Westview Press, 2012).