U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy was summed up in his famous phrase: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” President Barack Obama’s might be summarized as, “Speak loudly and carry a small stick, then impale yourself on it.” The much talked up, talked down, on, off, missile strike against Syria was never more than a futile gesture. But few could have perceived how ineptly it would be pursued. Like a cheap firework, Obama’s and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s call to arms made a bit of a bang and fizzled out like a damp squib.
Instead of using military action to weaken Syrian President Bashar Assad, Obama and Cameron have ended up weakening themselves, and indeed their respective offices. Obama has proven himself to be more ditherer in chief than commander in chief, supporting force, but too weak to use it without first spreading the responsibility. Cameron did the same, yet neither was constitutionally obliged to do so.
There is diplomatic wrangling still to come as United Nations inspectors set about securing and dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons while the civil war rages. But make no mistake: Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin have won this round by a knockout.
On the day Assad agreed to allow his arsenal of chemical weapons to be placed under international control, his warplanes were again busy dropping nonchemical bombs on people in areas surrounding Damascus, including the neighborhood of Moadamieh, where around 100 people perished in last month’s chemical attack.
What went wrong? What about Obama’s “red line” and moral duty?
The U.S. president found himself in a corner with a military option that wasn’t worth defending when scrutinized by the American legislature. The only credible reason for intervening in Syria would be to topple Assad. Whether Obama’s intended missile attack was “limited” or bigger than “pinpricks” it was not about securing an end to Assad rule. Consequently, many in the West asked, What’s the point?
Western politicians were falling over themselves to emphasize the limitations of any U.S.-led missile attack, weeks before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s bizarre promise on Monday that the airstrikes would be “unbelievably small.” Even Obama’s remark that the American military “doesn’t do pinpricks” on Tuesday was made in the same breath in which he announced he was delaying military action.
The red line in the Syrian conflict wasn’t Obama’s. It turned out to be Russia’s, Iran’s and Hezbollah’s. Their red line was Assad’s survival and they have stuck to it like glue. For all its talk of moral duty, the West’s commitment to this pales in comparison. When Western states did stir themselves to do something, it consisted of piecemeal, uncoordinated responses to events as they unfolded.
Like arming the rebels and “unbelievably small” missile strikes, warehousing Syria’s chemical weapons is simply the latest shroud to cover the West’s blushes because there is no will to act in Syria.
Assad, almost by accident, has tested not just the West, but specifically America’s capacity, or willingness to be a global power, and he has won. The West has blinked and retreated. It is the U.S. that is really surrendering its arms, not the Assad regime. Assad was even confident enough to publicly warn Americans of terror attacks if the U.S. dared fire a single missile at Syria.
There will be many ill-informed comparisons with Europe in the 1930s, after Obama inadvisably invoked Nazi Germany in his speech on Tuesday night. But one comparison might just be worth making: This month marks the anniversary of the Munich agreement, when along with France, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in an ill-fated bid to avoid taking military action against Adolph Hitler, allowed Nazi Germany to annex a large part of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain spoke for millions when he said he would not enter into “a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing.”
British and American politicians know voters are war weary from botched military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They don’t see the Syrian civil war, or the suffering of the Syrian people at the hands of a brutal dictator, as any of their business. Diplomatic negotiations over the bodies of 100,000 Syrians, and doubtless many more as the war continues, is now all that is left, even if it has been, frankly, fruitless.
Like Europe in the late 1930s, the time when the West could have shaped an outcome favorable to its interests and those of the Syrian people has long passed. The Syrian opposition is even more divided than it was at the outset of the war. The jihadists are fast becoming the major force on the ground and will now gain in strength. And all this has bolstered Iran and Hezbollah as well, which will have serious consequences not just in the Levant, but one suspects further afield too.
It is of course hard to make a case for intervention in a war where both sides are at fault. The latest report on Syria for the United Nations Human Rights Council has said that all sides have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Regime forces have massacred civilians, shelled hospitals and used cluster bombs, while rebel fighters are increasingly guilty of summary executions and torture.
No one wants jihadists running Syria, but can anyone seriously support a Western policy that strengthens Hezbollah? Will the West blink again when Iran stands its ground on its nuclear ambitions?
We have truly lost our moral compass if we believe that standing on the sidelines as the bodies pile up in Syria, or having some chemical weapons decommissioned while allowing Assad to continue to kill his people with impunity, is teaching him or any other tyrant a lesson. The West may well regret not adhering to Roosevelt’s maxim.
Michael Glackin, a former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a writer in London.