On September 14, 2015, the SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. organized a panel discussion entitled, “A Tale Four Augusts: Obama’s Syria Policy” that reviewed Kilic Kanat’s book of the same title, and explored the last four years of US policy towards Syria. The panelists included Kilic Kanat, Research Director at the SETA Foundation at Washington D.C., Ambassador Frederic Hof, Resident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council, and Nicholas A. Heras, Research Associate, Middle East Security Program at The Center for a New American Security. The panel was moderated by Kadir Ustun, Executive Director, the SETA Foundation at Washington, D.C.
The overarching theme that developed during the event was President Obama’s lack of a comprehensive policy to address the ongoing civil war in Syria and its contagion effects. As the author of the book, SETA Research Director Kilic Kanat was the first to speak.
Dr. Kanat’s presentation comprised an outline of his research and writing of his book. He began by outlining U.S. –Syrian relations, and where they stood when President Obama took office. At the beginning of the Obama presidency, the U.S. had a three-pronged outline for its Middle East policy that included; U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, creating a peaceful alliance between Israel and Syria, and isolating Iran. These goals, maintains Dr. Kanat, were abruptly displaced by the Arab Spring and its aftermath. He highlighted that, with particular regard to Syria, the Obama administration conveyed conflicting messages in the aftermath of Assad’s brutal reaction to demonstrations that erupted within Syria in the spring. The theme that the administration would provide Assad time to develop as a reformist regime was altered in August of 2011 when President Obama stated that the policy of the U.S. would be that, “Assad must go.”
The first of four major August turning points in U.S. policy toward Syria began. In August 2012, under the suspicion that Syria was employing chemical weapons against its citizenry, Obama drew a “red-line” for the U.S., vowing intervention should such attacks be confirmed and continue. However, the “redline” was not observed and the administration failed to develop and act on a policy and by August 2013, when it was confirmed that chemical weapons were being used, the administration failed to act. This failure to act, according to Dr. Kanat, was the action that did the biggest damage to the Obama administration’s credibility in dealing with the Syrian conflict. The fourth August brought an attention shift from the brutalities of the Assad regime to the burgeoning threat of the Islamic State in Syria. The beheadings of two U.S. citizens in August 2014 constituted the most gruesome act of violence against American citizens since 9/11 and the administration moved into working to build a coalition against the organizations rise. Dr. Kanat concluded his outline with the sentiment that, with its actions over the past four years, it has given international actors a green-light to use lethal force against their own population as long as it doesn’t involve chemical weapons.
Ambassador Hof echoed Dr. Kanat’s point that President Obama has delivered rhetoric that hasn’t been back up by serious policy initiatives, but stressed that President Obama’s biggest mistake lies in the lack of attention paid to civilian protection in Syria. From his experiences with the White House, Ambassador Hoff came to the conclusion that the administration had little appetite for real action in Syria, especially in the wake of Benghazi. Ambassador Hof also underscored his belief that the U.S. has a humanitarian imperative to do all it can to stop the human suffering in Syria. However, Ambassador Hof added that the person who is most responsible for the horror we see in Syria is not President Obama, but is Bashar Al Assad. In terms of U.S. reluctance to deal with the Syrian crisis, Mr. Hof cited the factor of then ongoing negotiations with Iran for the new inked nuclear agreement. To conclude his remarks, Ambassador Hof stressed the need for a major diplomatic “heavy lift” on the part of the U.S. toward bringing an end to the Syrian conflict.
CNAS Research Associate Nicholas A. Heras spoke on the subject of international intervention in Syria. He began by highlighting the lack of a natural constituency of cohesive, moderate, fighters that the international community can get behind as an alternative to the Assad regime in Syria. He maintains that the only way for there to be a successful conclusion to the violence in Syria is if such a force is established and backed. For his part, he believes that it is time for coalition forces to consider the establishment of a no-fly and safe-zone in southern Syria as opposed to the current tactic of addressing anti-Islamic State action out of the north of the country, which he views as both less geographically and socially hospitable. Mr. Heras also lamented that the focus of the U.S. on the Islamic State alone does not provide for adequate attention to the scale of human tragedy in Syria.
During the Q&A session Dr. Ustun asked each panelist to talk about what ground forces in Syria might look like – be it U.S. boots on the ground, regional actors, or the continuing backing of Syrian fighters already engaged in the conflict. Dr. Kanat underscored that before such a question can be contemplated, the U.S. needs to regain its legitimacy as an actor in Syria. This, he maintained, can only be done by the development of and adherence to a comprehensive policy for addressing the issue. Ambassador Hof contributed his thought that there is a strong need for an area in Syria where a model of an alternative govern can be incubated and then presented to the Syrian people. Finally, Mr. Heras maintained that the establishment of a no-fly zone in the south of the country might be the best alternative for creating the model group that Ambassador Hof mentioned.
The next question centered on Russian action in Syria – to which Dr. Kanat remarked that the timing of the recently imposed ceasefire in Ukraine had allowed for troops previously deployed there to be redirected to Syria. He hinted that, in the event that a ceasefire in Ukraine holds, Mr. Putin may ramp up action in Syria in order to preserve his anti-western image. To this effect, Mr. Heras noted that, especially with the backing of Russia, the international community should not underestimate the social and military strength of the Assad regime. Asked to address whether or not Syria was a center or periphery foreign policy priority for the U.S., all three panelists agreed that it had been a periphery priority. Finally, the panelists were asked what they felt the role of Europe should be in addressing Syria. Ambassador Hof responded that Europe should be committed to backing the U.S. in any measure aimed at civilian protection, and that they should play an active role in such an endeavor.