U.S. policy hawks have been blaming President Barack Obama for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. They argue that Obama has undermined U.S. credibility by failing to follow through on his proclaimed threat to strike the Syrian government for its alleged use of chemical weapons. According to this line of thinking, Russia would have been cowed by Washington’s resolve and responded to subsequent events in Ukraine by yielding to Western demands.
Unfortunately, such counterfactuals are exercises in wishful thinking. There is no evidence that striking Syria would have changed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculus. In fact, Russia’s response to Ukraine has had nothing to do with Obama’s actions in Syria — something the critics would know if they simply listened to Putin. The Kremlin was not responding to perceived U.S. weakness but attempting to defend its critical interests from what Moscow viewed as Western expansionism.
Obama’s decision to back down from the precipice of another ill-fated direct military engagement in the Middle East was a rare and laudable moment of sanity. Following through on a threat simply because the president had made it doesn’t necessarily help U.S. credibility when the promised actions would be counterproductive. Rather, credibility is enhanced by finding sustainable, long-term solutions to crises that are aligned with the interests of all parties.
Obama’s hawkish critics disagree, insisting the administration’s momentary pragmatism has undermined U.S. credibility. To their minds, credibility is ultimately about the United States’ standing by its stated commitments. And their carping is having an effect. Succumbing to pressure from these critics, the White House has responded to Russia’s actions in Ukraine by striking an even more confrontational posture.
Far from changing Putin’s approach to Ukraine, this strategy has unsurprisingly been highly counterproductive in the broader geopolitical arena. The current rift between the U.S. and Russia threatens critical initiatives, from the impending NATO drawdown in Afghanistan to the ongoing negotiations with Iran and resolving the crisis in Syria. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has been aligning itself more closely with other emerging powers to act as a collective counterweight to Western hegemony as it enacts effective countermeasures to punish the Europeans that joined the U.S. efforts to isolate Moscow.
But instead of acknowledging its missteps and seeking reconciliation with the Moscow, Washington is not only ramping up its provocative, irresponsible and inaccurate rhetoric toward Russia but also pursuing a counterproductive, nonconciliatory stance with Syria. Both policies undermine the success of Obama’s pragmatism and U.S. credibility as a global leader.
The Syrian debacle
In August 2011 the White House demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down. Since Obama was unequivocal in calling for this resignation, the conventional wisdom suggested that any agreement short of Assad’s ouster would jeopardize Washington’s credibility. Hence the U.S. and its allies refused to accept negotiated settlements that would have reformed the Syrian regime while leaving Assad in a prominent role to oversee the transition (the outcome still favored by Assad and his international supporters, including Russia). Instead the U.S. vowed to keep the armed rebellion alive until Syria’s president resigned or was overthrown, interfering with the diplomatic track in the interim.
Subsequent strategies to pressure Assad backfired. It began with ever-expanding sanctions. When they failed, as sanctions usually do, the U.S. began funding the nascent armed insurgency against the government while appointing a council of proxies as the “legitimate” representative of the Syrian people. A recent report by the Central Intelligence Agency demonstrates that these tactics have virtually never succeeded in achieving stated U.S. geopolitical ends. Syria proved no exception: Neither the armed forces nor the so-called Syrian government-in-exile ever garnered any meaningful control or legitimacy on the ground.
The U.S. should provide both Assad and Putin with guarantees and incentives in order to rebuild trust, mitigate disagreements and ultimately arrive at viable solutions.
The widespread Syrian ambivalence over the insurrection was not tied to a lack of confidence in the opposition’s ability to prevail over the regime. With U.S. support, there was little doubt that the rebels could win the war. Syrians have firsthand knowledge of Washington’s prowess in engineering regime change as well as its inability to ensure good outcomes in the aftermath. A series of U.S.-backed coups in the 1950s turned Syria into one of the least stable countries in the Middle East. It is not a history Syrians hope to repeat.
Rather, the 2011 Syrian uprising failed because the public lacked confidence in the opposition’s ability to provide a viable and superior alternative to the existing government. It was not a question of whether Assad’s foes could prevail on the battlefield but of what would happen next. It remains painfully obvious that neither the opposition nor its patrons in the U.S. government have any cogent plan for the day after Assad’s downfall (which is also likely why the U.S. has not yet deposed Assad). None of the United States’ orchestrated transitions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya or Yemen offer models that Syrians would want to emulate. These failures go to the heart of the credibility gap that the U.S. and its proxies face in Syria.
The White House has been offering the Syrian people the right to vote but not necessarily the ability to feed their families or live in relative stability and security. Meanwhile, Assad’s regime has been highly focused on the latter, providing these benefits in government-held territories and depriving them in rebel-held areas. This is why his beleaguered government is more or less winning the war. The Obama administration’s refrain that Assad has lost all credibility with the Syrian people is demonstrably false. For those who have to live with whatever becomes of Syria, the most credible actor will be whoever can, first and foremost, hold the state together and ensure its continued functioning. Questions about reforming the system, while important, will be secondary. One has to first preserve the state for reforms to be relevant.
Over the course of the last three years, the Obama administration had numerous chances to reconsider and perhaps radically reform its strategies and tactics in Syria. Instead, it continues to dump ever more resources into doomed enterprises because it mistakenly believes credibility is about follow-through.
And so the U.S.-led coalition has been sticking to the same basic formula in Syria, while Damascus continues to deftly adjust its approach on the political and military fronts. Assad’s willingness to change is a sign of not weakness but strength. Rather than losing faith in the state, the Syrian public is overwhelmingly and likely incontrovertibly siding with the government (albeit begrudgingly in many quarters).
The U.S. must recognize these calcifying political dynamics in Syria and treat Assad as a legitimate interlocutor in negotiations. Similarly, the Obama administration needs to acknowledge that there is no good outcome for Ukraine without strong Russian support. Achieving stable transitions in Syria and Ukraine will require the cooperation of Assad and Putin. In accordance with these realities, the U.S. should be providing these leaders with guarantees and incentives in order to rebuild trust, mitigate disagreements and ultimately arrive at viable solutions. This is not appeasement but projecting American influence in more subtle and productive ways.
Such a strategy may require compromising or abandoning previous U.S. policy positions. But the current regimen of threats and coercion will continue to backfire because it alienates partners who are essential to resolving the crises in Ukraine and Syria.