Foreign Relations & International Law

Is Syria Obama’s Fault?

Ammar Abdulhamid
Sunday, February 28, 2016, 7:03 AM

The Syria War, says Aaron David Miller, the distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, is "Not Obama’s Fault.” Instead, the war is primarily the work of Bashar Al-Assad, the president of Syria, who chose to kill his way out of a crisis rather than hold free elections. Arab countries, regional powers such as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and international powers such as Russia and Iran, also bear much of the blame.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

The Syria War, says Aaron David Miller, the distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, is "Not Obama’s Fault.” Instead, the war is primarily the work of Bashar Al-Assad, the president of Syria, who chose to kill his way out of a crisis rather than hold free elections. Arab countries, regional powers such as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and international powers such as Russia and Iran, also bear much of the blame.

But the West, argues Miller, and especially America, is guiltless for the horrors of that war, even if some observers find this truth to be somewhat “inconvenient.” Activists like me who expected more of Obama at the beginning of the crisis have simply “misread his willful determination to avoid militarizing the U.S. role” in the Middle East:

“[C]riticize Obama as much as you want;” Miller writes. “Blast him for pursuing an amoral policy that failed to alert the American public to the tragedy of Syria or its damage to U.S. interests. But don’t give him a test he couldn’t possibly have passed….Chastise on. But just make sure the United States isn’t at the top of your list. America just doesn’t belong there.”

I beg to differ. No, the United States does not rank up there with Assad. But that’s not much of a defense.

Miller’s argument that the whole thing is “not Obama’s fault” would have more force had the United States not had a long history of interventions, many of which it justified on humanitarian grounds, and the last of which—in Libya—came exactly as the nonviolent protest movement erupted in Syria.

But when Syrian activists looked to the West—and to the United States, in particular—for leadership, their instinct to do so did not come from nowhere. It stemmed from well-established facts and trends in America’s own history, including Obama’s own recent actions.

Let’s remember a few facts that were not lost of Syrians:

  • The Bush administration justified its intervention in Iraq on the basis, in part, of democracy promotion.
  • Its support subsequently for the Freedom Agenda included providing generous funding for training thousands of nonviolent activists in Syria and across the region. This played an important role in paving the way for the Arab Spring and for the nonviolent protest movement in Syria.
  • So too did the Obama administration’s political intervention in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, his military intervention in Libya, and his early praise of nonviolent protest leaders in Syria, coupled soon with his call for Assad’s departure and culminating in his drawing of his infamous red line on the use of chemical weapons.

Even before the age of revolution in the Arab World, the international community had adopted the UN-endorsed doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, an international law that was intended to establish the legal groundwork for international intervention to prevent or stop mass slaughter and to offer aid in the aftermath of natural or man-made disasters. The doctrine was backed by Western governments, including many top American scholars and officials—people like Samantha Power, Susan Rice and even President Obama himself. Obama, even before he was president, was willing to invoke the promise of Never Again, the notion that lies at the heart of R2P, in connection with the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Indeed, President Obama invoked R2P to justify intervention in Libya.

Call me a wild-eyed idealist, but I took this stuff seriously—and I don’t think I was being unreasonable to do so.

Indeed, when people like me examined the composition of the Obama Administration in 2011, we had every reason to expect to get its support for our cause. After all, ours was not a violent insurrection but a nonviolent protest movement that, for close to a year, resisted the temptation of carrying arms. If there were an aura of inevitability to the situation in Syria devolving into a civil war, there was an even stronger aura of inevitability in regard to America’s intervention in Syria to prevent mass slaughter. The prospect of allowing Syria to devolve into the murderous quagmire we see today flew in the face of everything we knew about the new world order that emerged after the end of the Cold War and America’s commitment to democracy promotion as a bulwark against terrorism—all of which this country maintained right until the revolution in Syria broke out.

People like Samantha Power—and Obama—should understand the effects of their rhetoric on those of us who took it seriously. A lot of people in Syria are now dead because they took “Never Again” and “Hope and Change” a little too seriously.

The attempts by the Obama administration at the time to pass the hot potato of intervention in Syria, even when it was not that hot, to the Gulf states, Turkey and Iran led directly to the current catastrophe. The authoritarian Arab regimes of the Gulf had no reason to rush to the defense of nonviolent, secular pro-democracy protesters. But given America’s dithering, they had enough time to do what they do best: help Assad turn the nonviolent movement into an armed insurrection, then Islamize the insurrection. Turkey, ruled as it is by an Islamic Party played her role as well, in addition to creating conditions that prevented a serious rapprochement between Arab and Kurdish opposition groups. Meanwhile, Iran and Russia provided unfettered military backing to the Assad regime. Nature abhors a vacuum. And conflict zones abhor a power vacuum.

Miller suggests that calling for American leadership on these matters somehow infantilizes the people of the region. “[T]his is precisely where the chastisers make their mistake,” he says. “They infantilize this region by assuming that only the West can save it or even begin to make it right.” It’s a funny argument that I never hear about the mature democracies of Western Europe, which have proven, time and again, that without American leadership, they are incapable of mustering the will necessary to stop conflicts even when they occur on their own turf, as was the case in Bosnia and Kosovo. Expecting a beleaguered entity like the Arab League to rise to such a challenge was a fantasy in service of inaction.

Sure, there is an Arab identity out there, but it has repeatedly proven itself too weak to allow for the adoption of concerted efforts on any crisis. The reality is that Saudis, Egyptians, Moroccans, and Syrians are different peoples with different, sometimes radically different, customs and interests and outlooks. They are far too different to lump together under one ethnicity or political label. Even the notion that they all speak the same language is something of a myth. Western academic scholars have known this fact and asserted it for decades. And there is simply no political history of the sort of joint action that should lead any outsider to believe American leadership was unnecessary in a genocidal crisis.

As for America, far beyond infantalized, Arabs have looked to her in times of crisis for close to a hundred years now for one very good reason: she willingly and actively sought to be in that position, by virtue of her own values and interests. Syria was never a test that Obama “couldn’t possibly have passed.” It was a test that he chose to ignore. No, we didn’t expect Obama to do everything alone, but we did expect him to lead the way, as behooves an American leader. In Syria’s war, there have been numerous moments during which an American intervention would have made ample difference and might have even prevented hundreds of thousands of people from dying.

Even now, there are a variety of ways an American intervention could create a more suitable environment for holding serious peace talks by establishing a better balance of forces on the ground. The least of which would be the establishment of safe zones and the provision of arms to moderate rebels in Aleppo and elsewhere. With Iranian and Russian support now, the Assad regime has little reason to negotiate in good faith with the opposition. By persistently ignoring this elementary fact about conflict resolution, the Obama administration is further alienating the embattled Sunni majority and Sunni communities worldwide.

This will be a veritable boon for Islamic extremists seeking to recruit fighters for the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram, among other terrorist groups. President Obama this week continued to describe Guantanamo as a major recruiting tool for terrorists that offends American values. I promise you this: letting Assad kill hundreds of thousands of Syrians will be a far bigger recruiting tool for terrorists, and it offends American values far more profoundly.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Shia militias and the Kurdish Syrian militias that have been armed by the United States to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have now joined Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime’s forces in the fight against moderate, Sunni Arab Syrian rebels and are busy conducting ethnic cleansing campaigns in Aleppo (here and here).

Miller, in short, is quite wrong in his attempt to defend the Obama Administration. For as we can see, the policies adopted and endorsed by the administration lend ample justification to assigning a prominent role to America on the list of countries to blame for what’s happening today in Syria. America belongs there by virtue of her own history, her own values, her own power, and the actions and stated positions of her recent leaders, including many of those adopted by President Obama himself.

As President Obama said as part of his remarks at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on April 23, 2012: “too often the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale. And we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save.” It seems he was not haunted enough.

In fact, the so-called Realist camp in America’s foreign policy circles seems to flip this logic on its head, by using the specter of what looked to them as inevitable violence in Syria as justification for avoiding intervention there. Indeed, the Realists seem to be quite comfortable with this sudden about-face by the Obama administration and its fallback on a Westphalian view of the world. Such an attitude, after all, makes the job of leadership much easier and, perhaps, much more popularly justifiable, considering its low material costs in the short-run. Still, that does not make their choice right, neither strategically nor morally, and will not make its long-term costs disappear.

When concentration camps are back in vogue again, there is something fundamentally wrong at work. The most powerful nation on earth cannot afford to look the other way or wring its hands. In our hyper-connected world, a return to amoral and illiberal politics will have dangerous repercussions at home. Security in the 21st Century doesn’t rely on military might alone, or on an attempt to transform your country into a fortress.

For an external observer like me, I see little difference between a man like Obama and his Realist advisers who build a mental wall between them and others, and a man like Donald Trump and his advisers, who want to transform this wall into a physical reality. That’s the essence of America’s growing credibility problem at this stage: both its left- and right- wing politicians seem equally amoral, arrogant and irresponsibly eager to walk away from America’s responsibilities.

Personally, however, I have long coame to believe that the United States has a moral obligation to be more than be the “world’s most powerful bystander,” as Leon Wieseltier recently put it in reference to the issue of Syrian refugees.

Indeed, to me, and to many around the world, the United States does have certain moral obligations when it comes to stopping and preventing mass slaughter, obligations that stem from her own cherished history, her own values and even her own interests. And while there will always be people from around the world who would blame America for acting, failing to act, or just for being there and being so powerful, there will are also be peopless who know very well that without America’s leadership, they may not be alive today—peoples like the Kosovars, the Bosnians, the Kurds of northern Iraq, and many others. This list of appreciative peoples could have included the Syrians, and could still include many of them, no matter how begrudgingly at this late stage.

Be that as it may, certain things need to be done because they are right in themselves, both for humanitarian and strategic reasons, and not because they will get you appreciation or save you from blame—little wisdom that one would have expected a man like Barack Obama, whose very rise to power comes as a fulfillment thereof, to understand deeply. Obama’s failure in this regard makes him, not simply imperfect or lacking, but disappointingly flawed and unappreciative of the very legacy that paved his path.

So yes, Syria is clearly Obama’s fault. His failure—and the failure of his Realist supporters—to see that and to own up to it, raises questions about the moral underpinnings of their worldview and their moral sense.

Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian author and pro-democracy activist currently based in Silver Spring, Maryland where he arrived with his family as political refugees in September 2005. His recent book, "The Irreverent Activist," a series of brief reflections written over two decades, is now available through Amazon. He also blogs at and is a regular contributor to Lawfare.

Subscribe to Lawfare