A few months ago President Obama had one of the most challenging interviews during his tenure. On “60 Minutes” the most challenging questions for him were about the U.S. policy in regards to the Syrian conflict. He had a hard time responding to the questions and seemed extremely frustrated with the follow-ups. His interview with Charlie Rose last week was not much different when the issue was Syria. The interview demonstrated that President Obama in the remaining part of his tenure will continue to face similar questions about Syria. It will most probably continue to be an issue after the end of his tenure. In fact, as I mentioned in a previous column, Syria will be the most significant determinant of Obama’s foreign policy legacy. So far in different interviews, the Iranian Nuclear Deal, the Cuba opening and the Asia pivot seems insufficient to cover the problems and criticisms that the Obama administration has received from its policies in Syria.
OBAMA INTERVIEWED WITH CHARLIE ROSE
In his interview with Charlie Rose last week, President Obama faced similar questions that challenged him previously about Syria and demonstrated clearly that despite his insistence on the same policies he is still not very comfortable responding to challenging questions on this issue. His self-confidence and comfort while talking about the Iranian Nuclear Deal dose not exist on the same level when the topic turns to Syria. He repeats several talking points that the White House has been using for a few years now.
In fact, in the interview he brought up the issue of Syria himself before it was asked of him, probably to pre-empt any critical questions on that topic. At the beginning of the interview, after explaining why the United States should be “judicious” when it uses its military power, the president said, “Probably the area where I’ve gotten the most criticism, some in the foreign policy establishment here in Washington, is around the Syria situation.” He continued to indicate that the U.S. could not afford another military excursion in Syria, while it is busy in Afghanistan and Iraq. The first issue about this preemptive explanation is that President Obama throughout the interview tried to answer each question about Syria by referring to deploying troops or invading Syria. Throughout the Syria crises we have constantly heard similar explanations by President Obama. President Obama in most instances provided an either/or scenario for the handling of the Syria crises. The only two options that he offered during the conflict were military intervention/invasion or inaction. He ignored all other form of alternative options provided even by members of his own administration in this crisis. Thus, he kept showing the American public that the only option other than his policy is a costly military invasion. Then he explained why the other option — military intervention/invasion in Syria — would be such a major mistake. His previous statements about the war fatigue of the American people aim to support this line of argument. In fact, he was mostly trying to refute an argument and proposal that does not really exist.
Later when Charlie Rose asked about his decision making after the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and reminded of his “red line” statement, President Obama was actually using the same argument. After stating that the relocation of Syrian chemical weapons was a success, President Obama once more argued that there are those who are willing the U.S. to deploy a large army to overthrow the Assad regime.
During the interview he also repeated his distrust of the armed opposition in Syria. He stated his skepticism concerning the capabilities of the opposition to defeat the Assad regime even if the U.S. provided arms and ammunition for these groups. Then several questions emerged: Then why did the U.S. launch an arm and equip program? Was it just killing time
Following this, Charlie Rose asked if things could be different in Syria with a different U.S. policy. President Obama made another well-known argument of historical analogies and demonstrated the case of Libya to argue that the “mess” in Libya could also occur in Syria. In fact, due to self-criticism concerning Libya, he seemed to instrumentalize this case to prevent further questions and queries about Syria. Following this, he made another analogy with regards to Iraq. President Obama once again returned to previous mistakes and tried to assess the conflict in Syria via those former experiences. He said: “The same is true in Syria. But what we’re not going to do is to duplicate the same kinds of mistakes that we’ve made in the past that did not result in more peace in the region, but, in fact, helped to precipitate some of the problems that we’re dealing with today.”
BUTTERFLY EFFECT OF THE MID-EAST POLICY
After providing the aforementioned reasons for his inaction in the Syrian conflict, President Obama provided another argument based on the deeper and more serious structural problems in the country. He stated: “Where you have a situation where you’ve got a much deeper structural problem and dynamics, as occur in the Middle East where you’re seeing the kind of changes you only see every 50, 100 years.” Of course, the expectation of the US at this point in Syria was not to resolve the deep structural problems in the country. It was mostly to help to end human suffering and killing. However, he tried to demonstrate that the mission is too big for the U.S. to handle at this point.
While President Obama was making these statements, the Syrian regime was continuing to bomb civilians in various cities. A few days after this interview, regime air forces bombed a pediatric hospital in Aleppo, killing 50 people. Secretary of State Kerry condemned the attack and made another statement – just like the previous hundreds. He said, “We are outraged by yesterday’s airstrikes in Aleppo on the al Quds hospital supported by both Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which killed dozens of people, including children, patients and medical personnel…
It appears to have been a deliberate strike on a known medical facility and follows the Assad regime’s appalling record of striking such facilities and first responders. These strikes have killed hundreds of innocent Syrians. The secretary of state is right that these attacks killed hundreds, thousands and many more and the explanations that the administration provided for the inaction in Syria in these interviews failed after each and every barrel bomb or air strike against the civilians. The historical analogies, references to past mistakes and trying to show the only possible option as the full invasion of Syria does not hide the existing humanitarian tragedy in Syria, and it will continue to haunt Obama’s legacy.
This article was first published in the Daily Sabah on April 29, 2016.