A year ago, in his January 2015 State of the Union Address, President Obama said with great fanfare that America “stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters.” Since then, President Obama has met with Putin three times, and John Kerry has visited Moscow twice. On December 15, John Kerry announced that he had agreed to Putin’s demand that President Bashar al-Assad stay in power in Syria. With American planes bombing Islamic State targets and Russian planes bombing the non-Islamic State targets, we are now supporting Putin’s aggression in Syria by eliminating all Sunni Arab opponents of the Assad regime.
At several points during the past four years, President Obama could have taken actions to halt Syria’s descent into chaos. His advisors suggested that he declare a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, as the United States did over Kurdistan in the 1990s. They advised that he arm a moderate opposition and that he set up safe havens for refugees along the Turkish border. President Obama let Syria burn.
When the Arab Spring began, Syria was an intact country with a peaceable, moderate opposition that was counting on American help in bringing about social change. On July 8, 2011, Ambassador Robert Ford went to Hama, Syria to observe the demonstrators that had gathered to protest Assad’s brutal regime. Ford reported to Washington that a hundred thousand people were assembled in the city’s main plaza, and the crowds were orderly and civil. The demonstration was a celebration of unity between Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Kurds. “They’re releasing doves in the air and selling flowers,”
The American and French ambassadors asked Assad to exercise restraint in suppressing demonstrations. Assad responded by sending hundreds of armed thugs to attack American and French embassy compounds. The assailants injured French security guards, ripped down the American and French flags and put Syrian flags in their place. They used a battering ram to break into the French ambassador’s garage and demolish his car. Embassy personnel were afraid for their lives. On July 11, 2011, Hillary Clinton said, “We have absolutely nothing invested in [President Assad’s] remaining in power. From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy.” On August 18, 2011, President Obama released a statement in coordination with the leaders of France, Germany, and Britain, that Assad must step down.
The President’s statement emboldened Assad’s opponents, raising expectations that America would intervene to help remove Assad. Senior White House adviser on Syria, Frederic Hof, said “The president doesn’t do advice or opinions; if he says Assad should step aside, it’s our job to make sure the guy steps aside.”
In the months that followed, Ambassador Ford, U.S. Congressional leaders, and Obama’s national security team all advised Obama to intervene in Syria to save civilian lives and to support a moderate Syrian opposition. By 2012, the chorus of advisers calling for decisive intervention in Syria included David Petraeus, Martin Dempsy, Leon Panetta, Samantha Powers, and Hillary Clinton. President Obama dithered, creating a vacuum that emboldened Assad to barrel bomb and gas Sunni neighborhoods. Assad released from prison Islamists whom he knew would form a violent insurgency, and he jailed and tortured moderate, peaceful protestors. In Homs and Yarmouk, Assad used starvation of civilians as a weapon of war. In 2014, Ambassador Ford resigned from his post to protest Obama’s policies.
We cannot, as John Kerry seems to hope, rely on Russia’s help to defeat ISIS. We have seen Putin’s model of fighting insurgents in the decade-long war that he waged in Chechnya. In Chechnya, Putin conducted a scorched earth campaign that targeted civilians. According to the International Crisis Group, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russian troops in Chechnya included “indiscriminate shelling and bombing, secret prisons, enforced disappearances, mass graves, and death squads.” In 2003, the United Nations called the Chechnyan capital, Grozny, the most destroyed city on earth. Grozny did not have a single building left undamaged. During the conflict, Putin killed off Chechnya’s moderate opposition, both in Russia and overseas. One Chechnyan leader was murdered in Vienna; another in Dubai.
In Syria, Russian targets have included hospitals, markets, bakeries, and grain silos. Michael Clark of the Royal United Services Institute, a defense think tank in London, calls Russian attacks deliberately indiscriminate. Since September 30, the vast majority of Russia’s bombing raids in Syria have been directed at U.S. supported moderates. On December 18, John Kerry complained that 80 percent of Russia’s airstrikes are hitting non-ISIL targets.
A much better model for success in Syria is the model America used in Anbar province in 2007. American soldiers won over the Sunni tribes by offering them protection from jihadis and by minimizing civilian casualties. When President Obama took office in 2009, Anbar province was under moderate, Sunni control. Americans can repeat this success by leading a coalition of Jordanian, Saudi, Turkish, Qatari, and European ground troops into northern Syria to create Sunni safe havens. Only ground troops can provide the protection and stability that will provide an alternative to ISIS.
Such a venture would not be a repeat of our costly 2003 Iraqi misadventure. Jordanians, Turks, Saudis, Qataris, and Europeans all say that it is time to build a credible Sunni Arab opposition along the Turkish Syrian border. They already participate in an American-led coalition in Syria, but they will not commit ground troops unless at least some American ground troops participate. If we can create safe havens in Northern Syria, we can negotiate with Putin from a position of strength rather than weakness.
For too long, President Obama has staked America’s reputation and security on the mistaken belief that his personal diplomacy with hostile regimes would bend the arc of history in his direction. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama proposed presidential meetings with even America’s most vicious adversaries, as if American intransigence was the principal impediment to global harmony. President Obama’s relationship with Putin demonstrates how wrongheaded this approach is. In his “reset” with the Kremlin in 2009, the Obama administration cancelled missile defense installations in Eastern Europe and negotiated an arms control agreement that required only American reductions in nuclear warheads. “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act,” Obama said in 2009. In 2010, Obama announced that Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia would no longer be an obstacle to nuclear cooperation with Moscow.
In 2014, Russia invaded the Ukraine and annexed Crimea, a venture that has upended the post-Cold War order, cost 9,000 lives, and displaced two million people. Putin’s rationale for the invasion was that Russian “compatriots” in the Ukraine needed his protection. This echoes the rationale that Adolf Hitler used in 1938 to assert Germany’s claim over Austria and the Sudetenland. On July 17, 2014, a Russian surface-to-air missile shot down a Malaysian Airlines flight over the Ukraine, killing 298 passengers and crew members. In 2015, Russia threatened Denmark with a nuclear attack and violated the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
The perception of an ascendant Russia has led to a steep rise in pro-Putin anti-immigrant demagoguery in Europe. Anti-liberal, nationalist parties now govern Poland and Hungary, and they are increasingly popular in France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Britain. Here in the United States, Donald Trump praises Putin (“I’ve always felt fine about Putin. He is a strong leader”) while dismissing concerns about Putin’s invasion of Crimea and murdering of journalists (“Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too.”) Trump has casually expressed support for shutting down parts of the Internet, interning Japanese Americans during World War II, and killing off family members of terrorists. In an uncertain world of wars, mass migration, and terrorist threats, growing numbers of Europeans and Americans are craving strong, decisive leaders who assure them of victory over their adversaries. In their search for such leaders, they are increasingly willing to sacrifice democratic principles.
Tonight it will be interesting to see what President Obama has to say about the state of things now.
Robert Carle is a professor of theology at The King’s College in Manhattan. Dr. Carle is a contributor to The American Interest, Society, Human Rights Review, Public Discourse, World, Academic Questions, Touchstone, The Federalist, and reason.com
Photo Credit: via the Kremlin on Wikimedia Commons; Obama and Putin meet with translators at the G20 Summit in Antalya on November 15, 2015, after the Russian military began operations in Syria.