mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Obama's Options in Syria Are Few and All Bad


A few days ago rebels were defeated and thrown out of a strategically vital town near the Lebanese border. Brigades of Hezbollah fighters reinforced troops from the Assad regime in that fight. They are now massed outside Aleppo; an invasion appears close at hand. Not too long ago pundits were predicting the imminent demise of the regime, but now the Hezbollah-Assad-Iran axis seems to have the advantage.

President Obama’s options in this environment are few and all bad. They’ve grown worse over time. A year, two years ago, things might have been different. But Iran and Russia noted Washington’s hesitation and doubled down on their support for the Assad regime. Hezbollah joined the fight with thousands of Lebanese fighters. The rebels, outgunned, are hanging on to what territory they already conquered and preparing for new battles. General Salam Idriss, the commander of the Free Syrian Army, said that “the rebels’ position had been so weakened that they would have little leverage at a Geneva meeting and thus would not attend the conference unless they received additional arms and ammunition,” as the NY Times reports.

This week, in response to the rapidly changing situation on the ground, President Obama and Secretary Kerry and others took another look at their Syria options. According to unnamed sources who spoke to the Associated Press, “President Barack Obama was leaning closer toward signing off on sending weapons to vetted, moderate rebel units.”

Russia, Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran are together pushing the White House into a corner. Obama promised a “pivot” away from the Middle East and toward Asia in his second term, but Middle Eastern actors are complicating the script. As Ian Bremmer creatively noted on Twitter: “Sec Kerry pushing off latest Middle East trip in order to attend meetings on…the Middle East. #pivot.”

[Obama photo courtesy Getty Images. Assad photo courtesy Wikimedia.]

Features Icon
show comments
  • wigwag

    There’s no reason to mince words; the Obama Admunistration isn’t pivoting away from the Middle Esst, it’s leading the United States to defeat in the Middle East. It’s a mystery how Obama can think that an American defeat by Assad, Hezbollah, Iran and Russia enhances his chances of a successful pivot to Asia. China’s Asian competitors aren’t stupid. If they see that American allies in the Middle East can’t depend on the United States, they will realize very quickly that they can’t either. You can be sure that they will react accordingly.

    • bpuharic

      How’d the Bush war in Iraq turn out? Al Qaida weak there? Stable, pro American society? Free country?

      We have no allies in the middle East. No one does. It’s home to a variety of religious pathologies each convinced it has perfect truth and all others must be destroyed

      Why do we want to get involved in an unsolvable problem?

      • wigwag

        You do not need to believe that Bush’s management of the War in Iraq or even the original decision to invade Iraq was wise to conclude that America’s standing in the Middle East is far worse under Obama than it was under Bush. Even looked at in the context of Obama Administration’s stated desire to pivot away from the Middle East in favor of a pivot towards Asia, Obama’s incompetence in the Middle East will insure that the Asia pivot is still born. The Asian nations aren’t stupid. They will see Obama’s fecklessness in the face of assertiveness by Assad, Hezbollah, Iran and Russia as a sign of American unreliability.

        America defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War. If a mere three decades later the Obama can’t stand up to a dramatically weakened Russia or a broke Iran, why should India, Japan, the Philippines, Viet Nam, Thailand, Taiwan, Australia or even Burma conclude that Obama will ever stand up to a resurgent China?

        Add in the fact that failure to hinder Iranian aspirations in Syria now makes an American war with Iran far more likely a couple years from now and the only word to describe Obama’s foreign policy is “calamitous.”

        • bpuharic

          I don’t know what ‘far worse’ means. Do you mean we’re now reaping the investment of the neocon fascination with ‘nation building’ to the tune of trillions of dollars?

          The right has what “National Review” once termed the ‘bigotry of low expectations’. It thinks we can hoodwink and manage 320M Arab Muslims to somehow abandon their heritage and follow us like the Pied Piper. Good luck with that.

          You guys complain alot about Obama but haven’t proposed one single solution to the impending disaster you claim is happening. You’re all hat and no cattle.

          What I see is an implicit recommendation for neo-imperalism that will continue to bankrupt us. That, according to conservatives, is true success.

          • wigwag

            You don’t need to be a neocon to believe that Obama’s foreign policy is a disaster. Vali Nasr who worked for Obama is as far from being a neocon as you can get and he recently wrote an interesting book excoriating Obama’s foreign policy. You should read it.

            Do you really believe that no one has proposed reasonable alternatives to the feckless Obama approach? In the pages of this blog, Walter Russell Mead suggested not attacking Libya. Many people across the political spectrum have suggested arming the Syrian rebels. Many Obama critics have pointed out how the Administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been all wrong.

            Numerous alternative strategies have been recommended yet Obama hits the sour spot nearly every time.

            Every strategy has downsides. That doesn’t mean that the best option is stupidity or paralysis. Yet Obama always seems to be choosing between the two.

          • bpuharic

            Yes, I really believe no one has proposed ‘reasonable’ alternatives, because, where are they?

            Not attacking Libya is a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ scenario. Conservatives pretend the US can work miracles to lead 300M Arabs to do what we want them to, regardless of their own will. Nice bit of social engineering.

            And since Al Qaida is one of the largest ‘Syrian rebel’ groups, are you suggesting we arm THOSE fine folks?

            The Israeli Palestinian situation was such a roaring success before Obama took office, wasn’t it? Peace reigned throughout the Middle East until January 20, 2009.

            Numerous alternative strategies have been proposed…like, for example, ‘nation building’…to the tune of 4400 US dead and $2 trillion.

            You haven’t proposed a single strategy…not one..and those that HAVE been tried by conservatives have been both deadly AND ruinously expensive

            If that’s your measure of success, I’ll stick with Obama’s feckless failures.

          • Tom

            Here’s one. Kill Assad via cruise missile. Cheap, effective, and gets the point across.

  • Twigletmaniac

    The opposition never united into a viable military or political force in contrast to the regimes cohesion, who was wash supposed to support?

  • Alexander Scipio

    Here’s an option: STAY OUT. There is not ONE SINGLE THING in any muslim country worth the life of ONE American.

  • Andrew Allison

    There’s only one sensible option, namely to make it clear that the US will not intervene in civil wars. It should also be made clear that action taken against US interests will be met with significant repercussions.

  • Matt B

    President Obama is leaning closer to signing off on something. Did the game change yet?

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service