History is moving to give us an answer to one of the great foreign-policy debates of this decade. President Obama has time and time again dismissed the argument, repeated recently by Hillary Clinton, that the United States should have taken a more-assertive stance to affect the course of the civil war in Syria. Clinton, who as Obama’s secretary of state argued that Washington should give more material support for moderate rebels, says a decision to intervene could have prevented the current calamity.
Obama says that is nonsense.
History is not a lab, where you can conduct experiments to see what ingredients, what actions, produce which outcomes. But events on the ground are moving quickly and gruesomely. To paraphrase Churchill, Obama (America, the West) had the choice between intervention and disaster in Syria. They chose disaster, and soon they will get intervention, as well.
The beheading of American journalist James Foley marked a turning point, but only a psychological one. When the Islamic State, the revoltingly violent group better known as IS, decided to publicize its unthinkably cruel killing of an American civilian, it helped to capture the attention of the Western public. But IS has been committing atrocities across Syria and Iraq, whose border it doesn’t just control — it has essentially erased it — launching a genocidal, sectarian, increasingly dangerous campaign.
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Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wanted to dethrone the al Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and wanted his organization to take over from al Qaida the lead in global jihad. It has succeeded in making al Qaida seem comparatively civilized and tame — and weak. Now IS controls large weapons caches captured from retreating Iraqi armies, and it has vast access to cash, not just from kidnappings for ransom but from smuggled exports of the massive oil reserves it controls in northern Iraq.
Islamic State seeks to initially take over Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and other surrounding areas so that it can cement its “caliphate,” which aims to rule over all the world’s Muslims and challenge the United States and the West, bastions of the modern ideology and lifestyles it finds so offensive. IS will never win its ultimate goals, but in the process it has brought catastrophe to millions of lives and wrought a twisted geopolitical mess.
So, now that IS swept across from its victories in Syria to take over large swaths in Iraq, the United States has started bombing its positions in Iraq, and U.S. strikes in Syria look likely.
What a sad state of affairs.
America now faces the most dispiriting situation in Syria. President Bashar Assad, the man who used chemical weapons against the opposition, must have a big, satisfied smile on his face. First, Obama said Assad must go. Now America is attacking IS, which is trying to overthrow Assad.
The United States now has no better choice than to help Assad root out IS, even if Assad is also repugnant.
In the meantime, some 200,000 Syrians already have died. The opposition to Assad has been completely overtaken by jihadis. Assad’s claim that those fighting his dictatorship were terrorists has become mostly true because nobody supported those who wanted democracy, while extremists received strong backing.
The moderate opposition, the ones Washington should have helped enough to at least give a chance at success, is squeezed on all sides. On one side, Assad’s military pounds them; on the other side the Islamists in the opposition overwhelm them.
The situation is so dismal that a Syrian opposition group called Jabat al-Nusra, the one officially anointed by al Qaida as its representative in Syria, freed another U.S. hostage, the journalist Theo Curtis, showing how “moderate” it is compared to its even more bloodthirsty rivals of IS.
Syria is a complete disaster. The country is in ruins. A brutal dictator is benefitting from the actions of the West, which has called for his overthrow, because now the alternatives to his — Assad’s — awful rule are intolerable (al Nusra) or horrifying (IS). On top of it all, the spillover from Syria has made Iraq into a war zone again, with more than a million displaced, America again involved and human suffering on a massive scale.
Obama may still argue that there was no way Syria’s moderate opposition could have won even with American support. We will never know with any certainty what might have been. But there is no question that the situation is about as awful as anyone could have contemplated. It’s a shameful chapter in American history.