A look at some recent statements from the Obama administration on the situation in Syria illuminates just how lost American foreign policy is in the Middle East. Last week, in referring to Kofi Annan's still-born UN-sponsored plan and the failed monitor mission, an administration official with knowledge of the Syrian file told Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy's The Cable, "[t]here was a fundamental decision made at the highest level that we need a real Syria policy with more options for the president. Our allies were coming back to us and saying 'What's your next move?,' and we were forced to admit we didn't have one."
Such a rudderless foreign policy is inexcusable. Over a year has passed since the uprising began. And over eight months have passed since President Obama called on the Butcher of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, to "step aside." That means that the U.S. president made seeing Assad removed from power official U.S. policy. And yet, he has failed to act accordingly.
If Team Obama had an inkling of how to put any muster behind the stated objective of removing Assad, it would have never accepted Kofi's initiative. The UN-sponsored six-point plan presented by Kofi Annan grants legitimacy to the Assad regime by calling on Bashar to negotiate with the opposition in an "inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people." The plan was guaranteed to fail. And while the rancorous regime in Damascus continues to slaughter its citizens, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opined last week: "Either we succeed in pushing forward with Kofi Annan's plan, or we see Assad squandering his last chance before additional measures have to be considered." Apparently, the Obama administration would like to offer CPR to a failed plan against U.S. interests.
Equally disturbing is the idea of giving Assad a last chance—a last chance for what? It could only mean that the Obama administration still considers Bashar al-Assad redeemable and reform-able. This, despite Bashar's own words promising to crush the opposition and despite the 10,000 people his forces have killed in just over a year. Kofi's delirious plan calls for a "Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, pluralist system". It's as if the scheme was hatched in a vacuum, light years away from reality. Assad has had over ten years to make changes, but he chose not to, electing instead to undermine and imprison those who called for reform. In fact, he called the promised reforms, "rubbish laws of parties, elections, and media," in an email to his wife, Asma, in July 2011. The verdict on the Assad regime has been in for years, despite the dangerous and wishful thinking of many in Washington.
The U.S. didn't win friends and influence people by backing the plan. It confused allies, emboldened America's enemies, and lessened international pressure on Syria, while increasing Russia and Iran's insidious leverage in the Middle East.
But it's not just that the Obama administration's Syria policy makes no sense; it is morally bankrupt as well. Take, for instance, the weak-kneed "Friends of Syria" gathering where the U.S. and 86 nations pledged non-lethal assistance to Syria's opposition. This is based on a strategy that still calls for the opposition to remain non-violent in the face of tanks, helicopter gunships, and sniper fire. Indeed, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, previously said that the Syrian opposition should "not look to outsiders to try and solve the problem." Meanwhile, weapons continue to pour into Syria from Russia and Iran, while Hezbollah joins them in training Syrian forces on how to best kill civilians.
There is no finer example of a proxy war where America's enemies have placed their bets against U.S. interests. And President Obama is waiting on the sidelines, surrounded by a policy staff that has yet to contemplate a Plan B. Doing nothing isn't merely an abdication of American leadership; it is a valuable gift to America's enemies at a time where the outcome of the so-called "Arab Spring" will influence U.S. foreign policy—and America's standing in the world—for decades to come.
Indeed, sitting on the sidelines ensures the most pernicious outcome for the Syrian people and the region as a whole. While the demonstrations that began a year ago were not Islamist in nature, al-Qaeda and its affiliates are pouring back in through Syria's borders. They are the same jihadists who went to kill American forces in Iraq—whose cross-border movement was facilitated by the Assad regime. They are coming home to roost. They also want the secular Assad regime to fall, although clearly their long-term plan for the country is different than what most Syrians want—or what America's more moderate regional allies desire. The longer the hostilities continue, the more influence Islamist elements will have in determining Syria's future. A slow and gradual process makes it more likely that the opposition emerges with less bridgeable sectarian divisions, where those who currently control regime's chemical weapons would be less able to do so.
Hope and change is needed for Syria and it requires American leadership. The U.S. needs to arm the Free Syrian Army and actively work to deepen the fissures between the Assad family and regime supporters. Furthermore, the U.S. should consider carving out a buffer zone with Turkey in northern Syria to help encourage more defections from the army. Too much is at stake in the Middle East and there is no shortage of options. It is long past time that the U.S. acts and does so intelligently and immediately.