It has been almost a year since the major interview with U.S. President Barack Obama in the New Yorker. Among the questions that David Remnick asked regarding U.S. policies and their role in the world, was Obama's position on Syria in 2014. The question was asked in a period when the U.S. administration portrayed the agreement on the elimination of chemical weapons with Syria as a victory. Despite the continuation of the killings by the regime with conventional weapons, for many the agreement constituted an end in itself, and, by that nature, desensitized most people to the humanitarian cost of the conflict in Syria. Responding to a question about Assad, Obama defended his decision to not directly get involved in the conflict and criticized those who believed that the U.S. had to support the opposition earlier, which might have overthrown Assad and provided a peaceful transition. He called it magical thinking. Later, he also said that any form of military intervention by the U.S. would necessitate a military force of the size and scope of the U.S. engagement in Iraq, utilizing the "fear factor" that the Iraq war created in domestic public opinion. He also said: "Our best chance of seeing a decent outcome at this point is to work the state actors who have invested so much in keeping Assad in power - mainly the Iranians and the Russians." More significantly, in regard to the rise of extremism in the region, he said: "The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant. ... I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadis who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian."
A year after these statements, we see that most of the projections and observations by Obama turned out to be problematic. First of all, the agreement after the Ghouta attack eliminated the weapons of the Assad regime; however, the way that the crisis was handled not only created a major problem of confidence for the Obama administration among its allies and the Syrian opposition, but also provided international legitimacy to the Assad regime and left his conventional military capability intact in the country. This situation was also emphasized by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper during a hearing on Syria in the early months of 2014. He said that Assad's hold on power in Syria was strengthened "by virtue of his agreement to remove the chemical weapons." It was significant that the U.S. administration and especially President Obama started to drop language that called on Assad to step down during his public statements and addresses. The White House acted as if the only problem in Syria was the elimination of chemical weapons.
Secondly, expectations that President Obama would engage with state actors to reach a solution in Syria also proved to be a far-fetched goal. In a period of one year, neither Iran nor Russia took any constructive steps toward the resolution of the conflict in Syria. The chemical weapon agreement did not only provide relief for the Assad regime but also empowered Russia as a broker of the agreement. In the meantime, Russia continued its defiance throughout the year in Syria and challenged the international system even more with its annexation of Ukraine, whereas the go-to person in the Iranian government in Syria and its major actor on the ground, Qassem Suleimani, had become an Instagram celebrity. These state actors did not signal any change of heart about Assad and his regime. The multilateral dimensions resulted in a worse outcome. The Geneva II Conference on Syria did not generate any meaningful improvements in the situation and failed miserably. Leaks about the frustration of senior administration officials demonstrated that not everybody was as optimistic in regards to the role of state actors and diplomacy as the president himself.
Finally, probably the biggest problem was his analogy of al-Qaida and the rising threat of extremism in the region. Even immediately after his statement there were some conflicting and inconsistent remarks by other officials about the rising threat of radical groups in the region. For instance, the director of the CIA, John Brennan, a few weeks after Obama's interview, said that Syria had become fertile ground for organizations such as al-Qaida to emerge and organize attacks outside the country. Later, in the summer of 2014, developments proved that these groups are more than a JV team. The invasion of Mosul, the siege of Irbil and the increasing number of foreign fighters pressured President Obama to develop a strategy against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) almost exactly a year after the announcement of his strategy for Syria's chemical weapons. However, the strategy once more proved to be not comprehensive enough to deal with the growing conflict in the region. It prioritized the war on terror but did not provide any meaningful action against the Assad regime. While President Obama was trying to assuage the public's "war fatigue" by not sending ground troops and not targeting the regime, he was also relieving Assad and his regime. It is because of this situation that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that anti-ISIS coalition airstrikes are indirectly helping the Syrian regime a week before his resignation from his post. Just like Clapper's statement in January that the agreement on chemical weapons strengthened the Assad regime, now there is a growing feeling among pundits on Syria that airstrikes are not destroying ISIS, but rather helping the Assad regime.
President Obama's arguments about Syria have proven to be problematic up to this point. And 2014 looks like a good year for Assad. After saying Syria does not have chemical weapons and the Syrian regime did not use them, he agreed to dispose of his chemical weapons to save himself from punitive military actions. He not only gained legitimacy, but his military capability also remained intact. Later he turned the Geneva conferences into an international platform to blame the countries of the region and the Syrian opposition and to bide his time. After that, with the threat of ISIS, he not only made himself invisible, but also enjoyed the airstrikes that strengthened his position in cities like Aleppo. After doing all this and enjoying a year of international neglect and ISIS diversion, Assad, a year after Obama's interview, gave an interview to the weekly magazine Paris Match. He blamed every state and actor other than the Syrian regime, asked the international coalition to conduct more effective airstrikes against ISIS and signaled that Syrian land forces are ready to help the coalition in its fight against terrorism. During the interview, he almost declared himself as the frontline state in the fight. Currently, he is probably following new proposals in the West to find a resolution with him better than anyone and is waiting for inaction to make the world feel obligated to accept his regime as a more secure alternative in 2015. For him, he is now in the playoffs, whereas the international coalition is a JV team and the opposition is a sitting duck.
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.