The two faces of the Obama administration

The two faces of the Obama administration
Comment: The chaos in the Arab world begins with the US-led invasion of Iraq, and it comes full circle with US policy regarding Syria, writes Laith Saud
6 min read
06 Oct, 2016
Kerry claims that he 'lost the argument' on Syria [AFP]

The conflict in Syria is the greatest tragedy in the world today. The great city of Aleppo has been reduced to 10 percent of its former population; half of the country is displaced.

The chaos in the Arab world begins with the US-led invasion of Iraq; it comes full circle with US policy regarding Syria.  Recent evidence highlights what many of us have argued for a long time: The Obama administration has never been committed to helping Syrians, "arming" the "opposition" or, most crucially, "regime change," despite what many naive leftists may insist. US policy is to allow Syria to disintegrate; just as US policy was to dismantle Iraq.

Before we address Secretary Kerry's comments on Syria, it is useful to remember the Cesar Syria Civilian Protection Act (CSCPA) which was designed to "impose new sanctions on the Assad regime and its supporters, spur investigations meant to fuel the prosecution of war crimes in Syria, and encourage a process to find a negotiated solution to the crisis."

In other words, it was to provide a non-violent means of forcing Assad - responsible for the deaths of half a million Syrians - to the negotiating table. Even though this bill was developed within a bi-partisan committee, the Obama administration lobbied congress to shelve the bill. But why? 

How does it make sense for an administration that claims to help Syrian civilians and want Assad removed, to block mechanisms that would facilitate those two goals? As James Baldwin once observed, "I don't believe what you say, because I see what you do."

I imagine a spokesperson for the administration would argue that the bill would "threaten" peace talks. And perhaps there is some plausibility there, but that ignores the fact that the same administration tried to prevent the congressional testimony of the Syrian military defector, code-named "Cesar". 

US policy is to allow Syria to disintegrate; just as US policy was to dismantle Iraq

Cesar documented the extent of torture employed by the Assad regime against civilians, his testimony placed pressure on the Obama administration to live up to its rhetoric regarding Assad. 

In reality, President Obama's policy in Syria mirrors his predecessor's policy in Iraq; reducing what were once large cosmopolitan civic states (though authoritarian) into petty, ethno-centric principalities. Since 2003 and as likely to be the case well into 2023, certain powers have been slowly "re-mapping" the region. 

The difference is that Iraq was invaded to this end, whereas in Syria, gasoline was merely conveniently added to the fires of conflict. Think of the so-called "support" for the opposition. In spite of political grandstanding and claims to support armed rebels, the US trained somewhere between five and 60 rebels. Yes, let me repeat that, between five and 60. 

This type of force could never threaten Assad, but was all that was needed for Assad to make the very valuable claim that he was "fighting" the US, and this narrative is a public relations powerhouse for the regime.

In reality, President Obama's policy in Syria mirrors his predecessor's policy in Iraq

The purpose of these "trainings" was never to support and arm a rebellion against the despotic Assad, it was, rather to technically buttress the posture that the US opposed Assad and was behind the opposition. 

Added to this confusion is the fact that the US continually pressured Syrians to fight al-Nusra - who are not the source of Syria's problems - rather than Assad, the greatest source of instability and violence. By this, I do not meant to imply that the average Syrian wants to live with an empowered al-Nusra, but Nusra is a symptom of the disease, which is Assad. 

So in public, the Obama administration claims to support humanitarian intervention and "regime change," but in private it has done nothing to work towards achieving these objectives.

Recently, John Kerry's comments to Syrian activists appeared to confirm what I am arguing has been going on all along, President Obama was never committed to "regime change" or even humanitarian assistance for the average Syrian. Kerry commented that he wished for more support for the opposition but "lost the fight" within the administration on Syria, but he encouraged Syrians that they could "vote" Assad out of office in potentially five years. 

This unbelievable statement is made all the more fantastic when we think of swift US policy in Libya, while the Syrian conflict has been allowed to persist. To be clear, I have never advocated for US intervention in Syria - I generally oppose foreign interventions. But why did the Obama administration engage in such posturing? This certainly exacerbated the conflict; it gave Assad the narrative he needed to prove he was part of some "resistance," while arming Syrian rebels just enough to continue the conflict, but never enough to win.

It would be easy to blame the opposition, but the truth is, there never was an opposition

Personally, I do not believe Secretary Kerry's comments that he "lost the fight" on Syria much either; I think these comments are intended to create the impression that Secretary Kerry and his predecessor Secretary Clinton were "stronger" on Syria than President Obama. 

This will be useful to Clinton as she seeks office. It also creates the impression that the Syrian opposition has some "friends" in DC, further perpetuating political dependency on the US. US policy in the region has become more obvious in the last decade; we have shifted from the state-centric focus on stability into a new paradigm. In the Middle East, this means containing chaos and allowing non-state actors to fight in out in a controlled area.    

This sadly brings me to the Syrian "opposition". It would be easy to blame the opposition, but the truth is, there never was an opposition (a fiction I myself subscribed to). The opposition was a figment of the US imagination. 

Putting dozens of Syrian ex-patriots in a room and calling them the "opposition," furthered the narrative that this conflict was between two equal sides, an embattled president and an armed and supported opposition. There is no opposition in Syria, just victims of the brutal Assad regime, either due to the direct violence it exacts on its people, or the negligence that has led it to lose all legitimacy.

And the US? President Obama is just as responsible as Russia and Iran in triangulating a situation that leaves the average Syrian in the most reprehensible situation, subject to the most nightmarish fate imaginable.

Laith Saud is a writer and scholar. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam for the 21st Century (Wiley-Blackwell). Follow him on Twitter: @laithsaud

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.