One 2013 quote from US President Barack Obama shows how much the administration has backed away from its “red lines” in Syria.
During a September 2013 speech, in response to a devastating Syrian-regime chemical-weapons attack that killed 1,400 people in four hours, Obama asked:
“What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?”
Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted on Twitter that it’s “incredible to think that Obama actually said this two years ago.”
As The Daily Beast pointed out, we now “live in the world that the president described,” in which “people in powerful positions chose to look the other way.”
The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been known to use mass torture, sarin nerve gas, barrel bombs, starvation, and mass rape to hang on to power amid a vicious civil war that has been tearing the country apart since it started in 2011.
When the war first broke out, the US was hesitant to arm moderate rebels over fears that the arms could fall into the hands of extremists. Robert Ford, who was the US ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014, told PBS Frontline earlier this year that the US dragging its feet on the decision to aid moderate rebel groups was a mistake.
“The jihadi elements in Syria were a distinct minority in the Syrian armed opposition in late 2012 and going into 2013,” Ford told PBS. “My concern now is that we no longer have any good options.”
Even after clear evidence of chemical weapons in Syria emerged, crossing Obama’s “red line,” the US declined any major intervention. White House officials in 2013 hinted at military intervention and the Pentagon began planning for which targets would be hit, but Obama then decided to seek Congressional approval.
The Syrian regime then agreed to a Russian-brokered deal to give up its sarin nerve gas to avoid a US strike.
Assad maintaining his power in Syria has been he major factor driving the massive refugee crisis in Europe, as thousands of people flee Assad’s rule in Syria.
Obama has been accused of neglecting to act in Syria out of a desire to preserve nuclear negotiations with Iran, a major ally of Syria. Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear program in a deal with world powers earlier this year, and some say the accord will be a huge factor in Obama’s legacy as a president.
Nevertheless, some experts warn against interventionism at this stage of the game.
“Frustration at the status quo is not a good enough reason to pursue a riskier, more interventionist policy,” Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, wrote in The Washington Post this week. “There has to be persuasive evidence that this administration could successfully execute such a policy. And I see zero evidence for that.”