Obama Fumbles Syria Policy

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

President Obama announced in a speech to the nation on Tuesday night that he will delay a congressional vote on authorizing U.S. strikes on Syria. This comes in light of a Russian-brokered deal that has seen Syria commit to giving up its chemical weapons.

“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps it commitments,” the president said. “But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad’s strongest allies.”

Obama also said that he will maintain the United States’ current military posture against Syria to ensure that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad goes through with the deal. A military strike would still be on the table if the plan fails.

This marks the latest in President Obama’s long history of twists and turns on Syria. The incoherent nature of Obama’s Syria policy – signified by shifting redlines on chemical weapons use, support for rebels increasingly dominated by Al-Qaeda proxies, and now a major reversal on what seemed to be a looming military attack – has revealed an administration that is simply boxed in on Syria.

In a sense, this new Russian initiative saves Obama from a major political defeat. All signs were pointing to the president losing a vote in Congress for a strike on Syria, and this would have happened after an already unprecedentedly small number of countries lent their support to such strikes.

The loss of the UK, in particular, was a decisive blow for the administration.

Furthermore, while Obama painted a vivid moral case against Assad’s atrocities in Syria, he proposed nothing that would actually end the bloodshed there. In fact, in all the administration’s talk of pursuing a military strike, the one aspect emphasized above all others was the narrowness of any potential strike. John Kerry even stated that any bombing of Syria would be “unbelievably small.”

As Ezra Klein put it, “It’s borderline perverse to use descriptions of pain, suffering and death to justify an intervention that would leave the cause of more than 99 percent of these deaths untouched.”

While it is a good thing that the Obama administration realizes there is no military solution to the current conflict in Syria, the framing of its arguments has been bizarre and often contradictory.

The one positive takeaway from all of these recent developments is that they place the United States, Russia, and Syria on a diplomatic path that ideally will open negotiating space for a deal to end the conflict.

Military intervention of any sort will only serve to exacerbate this conflict, not end it. The military only solution for Syria is a political solution. Thankfully, recent developments have put us on that path, however fumbled the Obama administration’s way of getting on it has been.

Sina Toossi is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.