One of the things I learned as a diplomat is that no policy is a policy. If you do nothing and the other side does something, you have helped the other side achieve its goal. Unfortunately, that is what is happening in Syria.
The United States has issued a number of statements with regard to Syria, but President Barack Obama has repeatedly demonstrated that he will not take action, even though his entire national security staff suggests he do so.
The Syrian situation is tricky, and the options are not simple. For example, sending in the Marines is not a viable option. Instead of a war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a variety of anti-regime groups, the conflict would quickly turn into a war between the “Syrian people” and American “imperialists.” Besides, as we learned in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, we are not good at nation-building. We go into a different culture, expect to install institutions from our own culture and are surprised to learn that they don’t fit.
Creating a meaningful policy not only requires respect and cultural understanding, it also requires carefully thought out options. The national security bureaucracy attempts to develop well-thought-out options for senior officials in Washington to recommend to the president, who makes the final decision.
As regards Syria, the question all along has been what can we do to influence Syria to move in a democratic direction. At a minimum, that means getting rid of Assad while helping to create a more less democratic government — one that will stand on its own and isn’t dependent on Iran’s religious fanatics or the Russians, who, with a modest naval presence in Aleppo, are trying desperately to retain their influence in Syria.
So what has the United States done? First, we provided air defense weapons and crews to Turkey to shoot down Syrian planes if they enter Turkish air space. Second we provided robust support for the Syrian opposition and some military units near the Syrian border to provide medical relief to refugees.
In this kind of situation, one would expect the United States to do more — to provide assistance to the rebels in the form of weapons, medical supplies and food. In fact, this is what the national security leadership recommended. In fact its recommendation was unanimous, which is very unusual.
Unfortunately, the president said no. He did not want the United States to get involved. He has that authority. He could have said yes or no or modified the recommendation. Unfortunately, his inaction created several problems.
First, by not getting involved in Syria, Obama encouraged the Iranians (who don’t take much of anything he says seriously) to become more actively involved in support of the Assad regime.
Second, Obama sent a message to Moscow and others suggesting that the United States would be pulling further back — that our nation does not want to get deeply involved in the Middle East or anywhere else. U.S. foreign policy consists of making eloquent statements or dire threats but almost never backing them up with action.
Third, and probably most important, Obama sent a message to those fighting the Assad regime that we would prefer that good, honest, semi-democratic forces win but that we really don’t care . This message was sent despite repeated requests by the more “democratic” forces for help. Many of those groups and fighters now feel betrayed. Even more dangerous, however, our inaction has helped open the door to al Qaeda elements. As the British foreign minister said Feb. 15, “Syria is now ‘the No. 1’ destination for jihadists who could then return to Europe experienced ‘in weapons and explosives’ to carry out terror attacks.”
There is no guarantee that the United States would have had greater influence in Syria if Obama had followed his advisers’ advice. What can be said is that his failure to act has minimized whatever influence we might have had in Syria. We have become a nonplayer.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.