The Syrian civil war has been tearing the heart out of the country and the region for nearly five years. The mere numbers alone illustrate this brutal reality with suitable bluntness and force. 300,000 likely dead; 11 million people displaced, either internally or externally; four million of them refugees. This is a barbaric and almost Hobbesian reality. It sometimes – indeed, often – defies understanding, especially for those who live in the West, most of them largely untouched by its ferocity; but occasionally, brief and transient insights are given for the benefit of those unaffected by all this into the sheer horror – and its vast extent.
One of these windows is provided by the refugee crisis; another is last week’s atrocity in Paris, in which ISIS demonstrated to the world a reality that those living under its brutal rule in Syria know all too well: namely, that it is a nihilistic, fascistic entity that desires the extermination of those who do not subscribe to its evil worldview. Both of these immense and catastrophic events were caused in no small part by President Obama’s inaction, and his lack of anything which may resemble principled and strategically sound leadership. And at the summit of this vacuum is a plan by the White House for the United States of America to take 10,000 Syrian refugees. It is a pitiful number, and the response from the American people has been far from positive, with many states already attempting to exempt themselves from the perceived burden of welcoming those who are fleeing genocide.
To this President Obama, with the hypocrisy of one who believes himself entirely free of blame, has criticised the moral character of they who refuse the resettlement of those whose country has been destroyed. Entirely without reflection in this pose, however, is any acknowledgement – let alone contrition – of his own role in the creation of the refugee crisis. We are presented with two reasons why this is so: that President Obama does not know it to be true; or, and this is worse, that he does know, but simply does not care. I believe the latter is more likely.
This situation – in which the man dubbed the leader of the free world wilfully fails to intervene in an international tragedy and berates those who dislike his stance on the resultant crisis – has been expertly analysed (and its protagonist mercilessly eviscerated) by Walter Russell Mead in The American Interest.
Obama’s own policy decisions – allowing Assad to convert peaceful demonstrations into an increasingly ugly civil war, refusing to declare safe havens and no fly zones – were instrumental in creating the Syrian refugee crisis. This crisis is in large part the direct consequence of President Obama’s decision to stand aside and watch Syria burn.
And it must be remembered that this policy – one which practically ensures that Syria will remain a quagmire for years to come, and that its situation will continue to deteriorate, generating both refugees and geopolitical problems with increasing regularity – is likely to continue for as long as Obama remains in office. The man who once pronounced, effectively ex cathedra, that ‘Assad must go’ will likely leave office before the tyrant is overthrown. This is an intolerable reality, yet it is one which has been effectively guaranteed by Obama’s own policies.
His declaration of a ‘red line’, which would be crossed if Assad used chemical weapons and which would trigger an armed response, was a lie; and it was dropped cynically and opportunistically in August 2013, when the world seemed ready to deal with Assad – two years, let it not be forgotten, after he had first started shooting protestors in the street and orchestrating a civil war of almost total destruction. Assad had gassed innocent civilians, many of them children, to death; Obama did nothing. Then the excuse was a shameful deal with Putin’s Russia, the same force which has now in effect established its own no-fly zone over Syria, all the better to attack pro-Western, moderate rebels, those who were until recently our only ‘boots on the ground’.
The new excuse is a desire to create some kind of absurdist international coalition, in which Russia and Iran – both of them overt sponsors of Assad – are treated as equal partners in keeping the peace. Iran was sweetened with a nuclear deal that will almost certainly allow it to continue its nuclear programme, and sanctions relief which will almost undoubtedly allow it to continue funding its terrorist proxies – not least Hezbollah and other Shia militias, which are fighting a sectarian war alongside Assad as brutal as anything perpetrated by ISIS.
And it is not as if Obama had no option but to pursue this dangerous and morally blind course of action. ‘He has repeatedly overruled his own national security officials, top diplomats, and advisors, many of whom have been horrified by the President’s passivity in the face of onrushing disaster.’
This will not be stopped – or even dealt with in the short term – by taking in a few Syrian refugees; but to use the latter as a political stick, all the better to spout moralising phrases and attack domestic opponents, is a frankly appalling gesture. As Mead has it:
For [Obama] to try and use a derisory and symbolic program to allow 10,000 refugees into the United States in order to posture as more caring than those evil Jacksonian rednecks out in the benighted sticks is one of the most cynical, cold-blooded, and nastily divisive moves an American President has made in a long time.
Reality and history must record that this policy – ‘Wringing your hands while Syria turns into a hell on earth, and then taking a token number of refugees’ – is not a moral decision; indeed, it ‘can be called many things, but decent and wise are not among them’. And this reality is made even more inescapable by the following verdict.
For no one, other than the Butcher Assad and the unspeakable al-Baghdadi, is as responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria as is President Obama. No one has committed more sins of omission, no one has so ruthlessly sacrificed the well-being of Syria’s people for his own ends, as the man in the White House.
Through his calculated and studied inaction, his deliberate dragging of feet, his unwillingness to take the initiative in preference for making shabby deals with despots, Obama will be damned long after he leaves office. And he will be damned less for what he did than what he refused – or failed, or was insufficiently perceptive – to do.
In all the world, only President Obama had the ability to do anything significant to prevent this catastrophe; in all the world no one turned his back so coldly and resolutely on the suffering Syrians as the man who sits in the White House today – a man who is now lecturing his fellow citizens on what he insists is their moral inferiority before his own high self-esteem.
Though I am in favour of both America and Europe taking many thousands of Syrian refugees, Mead’s righteous evisceration of Obama’s hypocrisy and moral cowardice is practically unanswerable.
This is perhaps why it is almost refreshing to see President Hollande of France – even though he was speaking after a horrific crime was committed against his country – vowing that he and France were ‘going to lead a war which will be pitiless’ against the suicide-murderers and the assorted enemies of freedom, democracy and modernity. The heart sinks, though, when one realises that France has only limited military capability in this area; that despite protestations of support from other nations, many will refrain from substantial action in the face of this act of terror; and that even if action takes place, and even if it is of a significant character, it will likely focus almost solely on defeating ISIS – not removing and dismantling the tyranny of Assad.
We must fight both ISIS and Assad. And we cannot do so simply by mounting bombing campaigns or supporting easy to sell figures like, for example, the Kurdish Peshmerga. Heroic as they are, and incredible as their struggle has been, it will take Sunni Arab allies to overcome ISIS’ influence in the tribal provinces which now constitute those areas where it enjoys its strongest support.
Similarly, co-operation with Russia and Iran, both of whom prefer Assad’s continuing in power to any acceptable alternative, ought to be as unthinkable as it is morally repulsive. To defeat ISIS as vigorously and rapidly as is necessary – and which is, for the moment at least, becoming politically popular – we must take on Assad, not with talk, but with materiel and the threat of military force; we must oppose the expansionism of Iran and Russia more dynamically; and we must support the secular, Western-friendly rebels who still exist, and whose survival ought to be an international priority.