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Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

For whom the bell tolls in Syria

'Enforcement of the 'red line' in 2013 would have deterred the regime,' writes Ahmad [AFP]

Date of publication: 18 September, 2017

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Comment: Syria is a manmade disaster, but perpetrators are unlikely to face justice until bystanders are made to reckon with the consequences of their inaction, writes Muhammad Idrees Ahmad.
A cynical exercise in reputation laundering was thwarted recently when, facing pressure from Jewish community leaders and intellectuals, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum pulled a study that purported to asses former president Barack Obama's Syria policy. 

Overseen by Cameron Hudson, a former Obama administration official now serving as the director of Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, the "study" tested Obama's choices against a series of counterfactuals and, unsurprisingly, concluded that "no single shift in policy options would have definitively led to a better outcome".

Rendered in the form of social science, the study is an ideological exercise with judgments prejudiced by its design and assumptions.

Setting an inordinately high bar for alternative policies, the researchers declared them all inadequate, presenting inaction as the best policy by default.

The verdict on the two most consequential abdications - enforcement of the "red line" and imposition of a no-fly zone - is equivocal yet this does not affect its conclusion about the virtues of standing by. At least two experts who participated in the exercise have taken issue with the conclusions and repudiated the study.

All this would be academic if it weren't for the enduring moral and political implications of Obama's choices. The administration's attempt at political engineering brought ruin and misery to people from Afghanistan and Iraq to Syria. It contributed to the unravelling of the international order and emboldened the most regressive elements everywhere.

The administration's attempt at political engineering brought ruin and misery to people from Afghanistan and Iraq to Syria

To obfuscate and downplay these errors is to perpetuate their consequences. 

Guiding Obama through all these follies were the dogmas of "realism" which insist that morality has no place in international affairs, security and stability are supreme virtues, and the sure hands of strongman are best guarantors of order.

Long before Donald Trump uttered the words "America First", Barack Obama pursued an America First policy. In Syria, Trump has made explicit the policy of regime preservation that Obama was implicitly pursuing.

Obama wanted to distinguish himself from Bush - but he chose a peculiar path. If Bush had intervened in the Middle East unprovoked, Obama was going to resist extreme provocation; if Bush had lumped Iran into an axis of evil, Obama was going to make courting Iran his legacy; if Bush had used terrorism as a rationale for waging war, Obama was going to eschew war in favour of combating terrorism.

The outcome however was not quite what he had anticipated. Obama's sins of omission proved as catastrophic as Bush's sins of commission; his courting of Iran didn't empower the moderates, it encouraged the revanchists; his focus on counterterrorism eliminated bin Laden but engendered Baghdadi.

Assad regime forces carried out airstrikes on the Khan Sheikhoun town of Idlib, Syria, April 24 2017 [Anadolu]

Under Obama the "war on terror" became global, and counterterrorism became the dominant paradigm for engagement with the Muslim world. In Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, people's encounter with America took the form a Predator drone, a Tomahawk missile or a JSOC night raid.

The Bush administration had combined military adventurism with the language of ideals - cynically and opportunistically.

The Obama administration responded not by aligning power with principle, but by denying the very possibility of such alignment. Counterterrorism was useful because it was the path of least resistance. Obama could conduct his war in secrecy, claiming its victories and deferring its costs.

The Bush administration had combined military adventurism with the language of ideals - cynically and opportunistically

It was in the Levant that Obama was really tested - and he failed.

In 2010 in Iraq, Obama backed a sectarian thug, partly to appease Iran and partly on the realist conviction (as expressed by his ambassador to Iraq) that the country was "not ready for democracy" and it needed "a Shia strongman".

The strongman acted as strongmen do, ruthlessly crushing rivals and relentlessly persecuting minorities. The result was the return of the Islamic State of Iraq (the forerunner to the Islamic State group as we know it today).

In Syria, Obama drew red lines he was unwilling to enforce and made promises he was unwilling to honour. Like George HW Bush in 1991, his rhetoric encouraged a revolt that his actions undermined. In the absence of a deterrent, the regime progressively escalated, engaging in wholesale slaughter, mass executions, systematic torture, and starvation sieges.

The result was the biggest exodus in recent memory and the backlash gave us populism, xenophobia and Donald Trump. 

Read more: Sarin denial and journalism's race to the bottom

Contrary to Obama's apologists, none of this was inevitable. The Holocaust Museum was right to pull the study, because its specious arguments and appearance of rigour obfuscate the simple fact that two actions alone could have entirely changed the character and trajectory of the conflict.

One doesn't need game theory and computational models to understand that a no-fly zone would have saved tens of thousands from death and millions from displacement. It would have neutralised the regime's military advantage since it has always been short of ground forces, and it would have changed its political calculations, making it more amenable to negotiation.

Likewise, enforcement of the "red line" in 2013 would have deterred the regime and given pause to its allies. Not enforcing it wasn't just a passive abdication; it was an active encouragement to violence since by setting parameters and allowing them to be breached, Obama had signalled to the regime that there was nothing it could not get away with.

Both proposals were practicable, as demonstrated by Obama's imposition of a no-fly zone over Hasakeh and Trump's strikes on the Shayrat Air Base.

Obama's inaction in Syria has set a dangerous precedent. If Bashar al-Assad can get away with genocide in the 21st century, then no despot need ever have to tolerate dissent.

If Bashar al-Assad can get away with genocide in the 21st century, then no despot need ever have to tolerate dissent

The years since 2011 have signalled to tyrants everywhere that it's less risky to coerce than to compromise. Every time Assad appears on the verge of victory, there is a rush of "realist" proposals to rehabilitate him - for "stability". But as long as Assad remains in power, millions will remain displaced, ensuring the instability not just of Syria but also its neighbourhood and beyond.

The notion of accountability has been long since abandoned; but "realists" are actually encouraging the EU to accept Assad's sovereignty and reward him with reconstruction grants!

This is not amoral realpolitik; it is the birth of a profoundly evil new order.  

Syria is a manmade disaster - made by perpetrators and bystanders. But perpetrators are unlikely to face justice until bystanders are made to reckon with the consequences of their inaction. It was Barack Obama's "America First" conviction, that the tolling of distant bells shouldn't tax his country's attention or resources.

But in its global impact, the Syrian war has revealed that the bell tolls for us too. It is time then to reject this retreat into tribes and embrace John Donne's timeless adage: No man is an Island and each unjust death diminishes all of us.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling. 

Follow him on Twitter: @im_PULSE


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

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