The consequences of inaction are always more difficult to predict than the possible outcomes of specific actions in foreign policy crises. While the U.S. administration has been discussing options regarding how to react to various crises in different regions, most significantly Syria, inaction somehow was considered as the best form of action and more problematically the most risk averse one.
However, usually it is the reverse. Inaction can be extremely risky, unpredictable and dangerous. Reports in regards to the decision making mechanism of the Obama administration and the memoirs of the former members of his administration revealed that in different circumstances when the members of the administration, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Former CIA Chief David Petraeus suggested a solution to the Syrian conflict by arming the rebel groups, the White House rejected it and instead took no action and kept emphasizing the diplomatic solution as the only viable remedy for the problem.
The consequence of inaction in Syria is a humanitarian disaster and a diplomatic failure of the U.S. The civil war in Syria has not only cost the lives of almost 200,000 people but also the inaction has brought unintended consequences, such as the Syrian government's defiance to abide by basic humanitarian laws, including crimes against humanity and the use of chemical weapons by the regime forces. The consequences of such inaction by the U.S. would be probably among the worst possible outcomes of specific actions regarding Syria.
The inaction in Syria also led to the rise of the radical group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) first in the northern part of Syria and after the reorganization and empowerment of the organization it moved into central Iraq, which led to the capture of the second largest city, Mosul. After the conflict spread from Syria to Iraq, President Obama decided to continue the policy of inaction stating that the U.S. will not send its ground troops into Iraq, which eliminated a potential U.S. deterrence measure.
Two months after the fall of Mosul, the U.S. administration finally recognizes their inaction since the capture of Mosul by ISIS which brought some unwanted consequences into the conflict. This time, most of the outcomes have directly impacted U.S. national interests in the region. While President Obama announced his decision to provide humanitarian assistance to people fleeing from ISIS with limited air strikes when it is deemed necessary, he legitimized this decision by stating the possible danger that ISIS forces pose to U.S. personnel in Irbil. Moreover, the oil rich Kurdish region could see a possible threat of capture by ISIS forces, which may affect both oil prices as well as the U.S.' relationship with Kurdish authorities. Furthermore, administration officials also stated the potential acts of genocide by ISIS against civilians, in particular Yazidi minorities.
Under these circumstances, the president finally decided to take action and launch military strikes against ISIS forces in Iraq. However, he never mentioned the possibility of such an action in Syria. Although many consider the root causes of the problem and the most significant contributing factor of the conflict in Iraq is the problem in Syria, President Obama decided to ignore this link one more time in his recent statements. Hillary Clinton also mentioned this problem in the U.S. administration. In a recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, she said "failure" to support the moderate groups fighting against the Assad regime in Syria helped the growth and empowerment of ISIS and thus the situation in Iraq right now.
It is not clear what President Obama had in mind in regards to the problem at this point other than "limited strikes" and "no boots on the ground." We will see in the coming days if these operations in Iraq are some face saving measures for the Obama administration or a real attempt by the U.S. administration to start fulfilling its great power responsibilities.
About the author
Kılıç Buğra Kanat is Research Director at SETA Foundation at Washington, D.C. He is an assistant professor of Political Science at Penn State University, Erie.