By Aijaz Zaka Syed
The writer is a Middle East based columnist.
For those of us who generally admire President Obama as a man of principle, it is wrenching to watch his paralysis. As I see it, Syria has been his worst mistake, a huge blot on his legacy, writes Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times.
Kristof comes from an increasingly rare breed of journalists, who view their calling as a trust and responsibility. As someone who has covered and written at length about the ethnic cleansing and genocide in the Balkans, Rwanda and Darfur, he is angry at the Obama administration’s response to the humanitarian catastrophe that is Syria.
“As a senator, Obama used to complain to me and others that President Bush was too passive about atrocities in Darfur. “I am strongly supportive of us doing what it takes to stop the slaughter that is taking place, and I think that no-fly zones have to be part of that formula”, Obama told me in 2006. He should listen to himself,” says the columnist.
For someone like me who once adored Obama, this frustration is totally relatable. Indeed, Syria has been one of the twin disasters of his legacy, the other being Palestine of course.
Even the much-hyped resolution of Iran’s nuclear knot seems to have helped Washington little. On the one hand, it has angered the US’ traditional allies in the region even as Iran has expanded its influence, from Iraq and Syria to Yemen where it’s engaged in a bitter proxy war with the Saudi-led Arab coalition. On the other hand, it is the Russians, Washington’s European allies and even China and India who seem to have really benefited from the thaw with Iran and easing of international sanctions. The US’ sphere of influence has further contracted.
Military cooperation between the the Ayatollahs and the Russians has grown manifold. For the first time in history, Russian jets have been flying from an Iranian airbase to hit Syrian targets, killing defenceless civilians like flies.
All this has happened on the watch of a leader who began with immense promise and had been hailed as the first ‘global president’ for the love and support that he evoked around the world. He was feted with the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office for his resolve to bring peace to the Middle East.
Who could forget his sublime oratory in Cairo, reaching out to the Muslim world like no US president had ever done. “The Palestinian people have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. They endure the daily humiliations that come with occupation. Their situation is intolerable.”
After that initial burst of enthusiasm that saw him appoint a special envoy to the Middle East in his first week in office and seek a ‘new beginning’ with the Muslim world though, Obama has done little over the past seven years to change the ‘intolerable’ situation. He gave up pretty quickly in the face of the characteristic Israeli intransigence and obfuscation.
Forget resolving the most vexing of Middle East conflicts; Israel has actually been rewarded for its continuing persecution of the Palestinians with an unprecedented $38 billion military aid package, the biggest Washington has ever gifted any country. This after all the flak and humiliation that Obama has received from Netanyahu and his powerful friends on Capitol Hill.
Thanks to the administration’s indifference not only has Israel expanded its criminal enterprise of settlements on what little remains of Palestinian land and killed hundreds of Palestinians in cold blood in the name of security, it has done away totally with the pretence of ‘peace talks’.
Why would Israel talk peace with the Palestinians when it’s rewarded for ignoring and killing them?
But while the tale of betraying Palestinians is old and familiar, it is Syria that remains our hero’s single biggest failure. Obama’s crippling inaction has directly resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and displacement of more than 11 million Syrians. It has sparked the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis since the World War II, with thousands of them dying at high seas.
Obama’s reluctance to use force and get bogged down in yet another military conflict in the Middle East may have been well meaning but it has turned out to be the undoing of a whole country. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
His dithering on Syria was virtually seen as an invitation to others to get involved. As Marwan Bishara argues, Obama’s aversion to getting involved in Middle East affairs has allowed others to do just that: Iran took advantage of the US withdrawal to enforce its own presence in Iraq; Russia took advantage of the US reluctance to intervene in Syria to deploy its military last year. And yes, this reluctance also created the monster called Isis, from the badlands of Iraq, thanks to the brutality of US occupation and sectarian militias.
What hopeless, mindboggling mess! And nothing illustrates it more starkly than the wholesale destruction of Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest cities. The historical city has nearly been flattened as a punishment for hosting rebels.
Around 300,000 of its besieged residents, locked away in their ruins, are being starved to death. Jets have been relentlessly pounding the last bastion of resistance. These jets have even bombed a UN convoy that was bringing in much-needed humanitarian aid, killing around a dozen doctors and nurses, not to mention the vetoing of a UN resolution that called for ending air strikes.
These are nothing short of war crimes, as France has rightly suggested. Yet the international community, including Washington, has just stood around rubbing its hands. All that the US could come up with is the threat to suspend ‘bilateral engagement’ with Moscow over Syria, as if the Russians care. Russia and their friends in Damascus think they are finally winning. Why would they want to ‘engage’ Washington now?
Another brainy idea being thrown about by US diplomats as a ‘Plan B’ is a No Fly Zone over Syria, a la Iraq, to stop the relentless air attacks.
It is an idea whose time may have already passed. It is too little, too late. It would have perhaps worked early in the conflict if the US had backed it up with the threat of use of force. As the top diplomat of the US, John Kerry reportedly told some Syrian groups privately that his diplomatic efforts have gone nowhere because they are not backed by military muscle. Besides, this is literally the fag end of this president’s tenure.
Still, given the utter hopelessness of the situation, any proposal offering faintest hope of putting an end to the Syrian misery is worth trying. It is certainly better than doing nothing. The US remains the world’s reigning superpower and could certainly help end this nightmare if it indeed wants to, rescuing Obama’s legacy.
In the words of Kristof, if we don’t act after half a million deaths, will we after one million? After two million? When?