Published by The Lawfare Institute
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While I definitely cannot lay a claim to representing all Syrians, home or abroad, and while I definitely cannot represent the sentiments of pro-Assad Syrians—who, in fact, do exist—I am willing to wager that there are millions of them who will agree with the following view of President Barack Obama’s last state of the union address.
Most people, including most Syrians, are quite willing to believe President Obama’s boast that the “United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period.” And they likely nodded in agreement when he said that “when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead—they call us.”
The trouble from a Syrian perspective is that calling on the U.S.—and President Obama—for help is exactly what the Syrian people have been doing for years, ever since the early months of their revolution back in 2011, when pro-democracy protesters were marching peacefully, demanding respect for their basic rights, and giving the world a reason to hope. As President Obama himself noted at a time: “we see it in the courage of those who brave bullets while chanting, 'peaceful,' 'peaceful.'” Syria’s peaceful pro-democracy activists could never understand why President Obama chose to turn his back on them, allowing the regime to get away with mass murder, and for radical forces to emerge and hijack their revolution. In the meantime, when their oppressor called on his friends, Iran and Russia, for help, they came rushing in.
Syrians, in other words, did not look to Iran or Russia; they called America, who didn’t answer. Assad, meanwhile, called Iran and Russia. And they did answer.
What happens to a world when “the most powerful nation on Earth. Period.” chooses to turn its back on peaceful prodemocracy protesters? We don’t really have to wonder. Just look at Syria today and you’ll have your answer. Where there was a nonviolent protest movement braving the odds, there is now a civil war. Where there were secular and nationalist forces fighting for their freedom, there are now extremists on all sides muddying the waters, making life hell for civilians and creating a security nightmare for many a nation around the world. When “the most powerful nation on Earth. Period.” chooses to turn its backs on those great responsibilities that come with great power, what alternatives are prodemocracy activists and normal citizens interested in leading peaceful dignified subsistence left with?
In the bizarre verbiage of international relations thought, this approach is for some reason called realism.
But are quagmire and nonintervention really the only choices that America has when it comes to Syria? This is what President Obama seemed to be suggesting not just in his State of the Union but in many previous statements too. When he seemed to be criticizing Donald Trump’s anti-everybody not-like-us utterances in his address on Tuesday, he seemed briefly to hail from a different, better world than the one he embraced through this reductionism of his. In fact, he seemed to remember that a certain moral courage is part of the American value system: “We made change work for us, always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more people. And because we did, because we saw opportunity where others saw peril, we emerged stronger and better than before.”
Of course, the President did not shy away completely from intervention; he made a point to mention the fate of Bin Ladin. So, in practice, his boast about America’s power boils down to a creed more Roman than American: we are the greatest power on Earth, and by virtue of our power, we have interests everywhere, and we will intervene to protect them, but we won’t care about anything or anyone else.
When you deal with the world armed with such a mentality, don’t expect that it won’t reverberate at home, and don’t be surprised that there will emerge people on the domestic scene who will adopt a similar attitude against compatriots whom they deem lesser than themselves. In short, if Trump represents one side of the coin called arrogance, Obama represents its other side. Trump wants us to fear the others in our midst, and all around us, Obama merely wants us to be indifferent to their suffering. The first calls us names, the other merely treats us as nobodies, as a people who cannot be motivated by a simple desire for freedom, but only by a desire to settle some centuries old vendettas.
This brings me to Obama’s willingness to refer to the current situation in the Middle East as “a transformation … rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” This used to be how the right wing referred to the Middle East. It used to be a vocabulary that liberals like Obama spent their time decrying. Now we have the right wing speaking of democracy promotion, while the left falls on dangerous stereotypes to justify its unwillingness to lead even a humanitarian intervention. Not too long ago, it was the left that lobbied hard to ensure the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect, a legal doctrine for the specific purpose of justifying intervention in situations such as the one that has unfolded in Syria since 2011. Its abnegation by Obama, one of its erstwhile supporters, undermines his own moral outrage against Trump’s racism. When you are the President of the “most powerful nation on Earth. Period,” your sense of humanity cannot have a geographical border. It has to be coterminous with your power’s reach.
That power could have made a lot of difference in Syria and elsewhere, without the need for full-scale invasions.
The conflicts in the Middle East have nothing to do with what happened a thousand years ago, a fact a person with President’s Obama’s academic background should know well. Some Middle Eastern leaders might use such rhetoric to inflame sentiments, but the reality is far simpler: on the one hand we have a greedy, corrupt, and authoritarian ruling elite fleecing its people, and using them as fodder for wars meant to expand their influence and enrich their coffers. On the other hand, we have people whose yearning for freedom is strong and genuine, though some of them do, indeed, have legitimate concerns when it comes to radical change. Those concerns could have been alleviated through international mediation.
Of course, the situation is now complicated by the presence of too many radical Islamist groups, including Al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State and many others. The rise of these groups put the moderates and liberal forces between a rock and a hard place. Now they have to fight on multiple fronts, with little support from anyone. Even when the U.S. finally offered some support, it was made conditional on fighting IS only: the rebels were expected to focus on fighting IS even as the regime, now with Russian air and tactical support, focused on fighting them. As the number of moderates dwindled, with many of them taking their families and leaving the country and others refusing to join America’s training programs on such foolish terms, the Obama administration did an about-face on its commitment to Assad’s removal. It is now working with the Syrian branch of the PKK to defeat IS in the northeastern parts of Syria, which will give secessionist Kurds their coveted enclave there, and with Sunni tribes motivated by the promise of establishing their own Sunnistan, in order to take over other areas in the north currently controlled by IS. This will leave the fate of the rest of Syria to be decided in the ongoing battles pitting Islamist and moderate rebels against the Russians, Iranians, Hezbollah units and pro-Assad Shia and Alawite militias.
By showing indifference to mass slaughter and dismissing the idea of humanitarian intervention as tantamount to creating another Vietnam or Iraq, President Obama in his own way has helped diminish America in the eyes of the world, just as he allowed Syria to diminish and be torn apart.
Yet now we have to listen to the President waxing poetic about the meaning of leadership, saying that “Leadership means a wise application of military power, and rallying the world behind causes that are right.”
Understand how this translates to a Syrian: I never thought your cause was right, which is why I never rallied anyone behind it.
President Obama spoke of conflicts in the Middle East lasting a generation, but here is what he did not tell us: what kind of a region, what kind of a world, does he expect to see in a generation, as he leaves extremists, terrorists, mass murders and Russian and Iranian imperialists to shape unmolested our realities, and as he leaves pro-democracy forces with no one to help them?