By playing nice with Tehran and allowing Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities to continue unabated, the Obama administration is driving Syrians right into the arms of the Islamic State.
- By Frederic C. HofAmbassador Frederic C. Hof is senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He worked on Syria-related matters in the U.S. Department of State from April 2009 until September 2011.
On Aug. 16, Syrian regime aircraft bombed a vegetable market in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma, slaughtering over 100 Syrian civilians and wounding some 300 more. Many of the victims were children; it was one of the deadliest airstrikes of a brutal war. This is far from the first regime-committed atrocity in a Damascus suburb: Exactly two years ago today, Bashar al-Assad’s forces launched a chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, which killed hundreds. In the case of the Douma attack, President Barack Obama’s administration reacted with its usual pantomime of outrage: strong verbal condemnation, condolences for the families of victims, and a plea that the international community “do more to enable a genuine political transition in Syria.”
A genuine political transition in Syria, however, is not right around the corner. Yet every airstrike by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is fueling radicalization in the Syrian here and now. The only clear winner in the Douma abomination was the pseudo “caliph” of the so-called Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a hardened criminal who recruits followers courtesy of the Iranian-sponsored Assad regime’s atrocities and Western complacency. Iran and Assad know exactly what they are doing by bolstering this evil. The West, meanwhile, is complacently unresponsive.
Every barrel bomb dropped on defenseless civilians by regime helicopters is a recruiting gift to Baghdadi, the head of a vicious criminal enterprise that combines the worst aspects of al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Baathism. Every Syrian child killed by barrel bombs or starved to death by regime sieges convinces others that if the “international community” can muster nothing but words, perhaps the self-styled caliph can offer protection. Eager to help rid its Syrian client of credible, nationalistic opponents, Iran consciously supports a program of mass murder that only gives Baghdadi power in Syria and in the Sunni Muslim world at large.
For Obama, who has said that his goal is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” an organization known variously as the Islamic State, ISIL, ISIS, and Daesh, Assad’s atrocities ought to provoke a reaction that extends beyond the same tired rhetoric. They do not. This is because Iran — the object of the administration’s courtship — is fully enabling the mass homicide strategy of its Syrian client.
In its single-minded pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Iran, the Obama administration adopted a Syria policy rich in rhetoric and empty of substantive action. Until June 2014, when the Islamic State used its bases in Syria to overrun much of Iraq, the administration could use the indifference of the U.S. and European publics to Syria’s agony to duck the fact that Assad had continuously undermined the White House’s credibility — ignoring the president’s loose talk about how Assad had lost legitimacy and the chemical “red lines” that ought not be crossed.
Getting a legacy-boosting nuclear deal with Iran was everything for the Obama administration. Nothing should be done in Syria that would offend Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ support for Assad’s mass murder strategy. Offending them — or so the theory went — might cause Iran to walk away from the nuclear talks and forsake a monetary cornucopia in sanctions relief and foreign direct investment.
Public indifference toward Syria’s hellish humanitarian crisis still prevails. But by committing the United States to a war against the Islamic State, the administration found its task complicated by the fact that Assad’s atrocities and his lack of legitimacy had created the very vacuum in eastern Syria filled by Baghdadi and his followers. From the beginning of the uprising, Assad had proclaimed himself a bulwark against terrorists: Yet even as his forces gunned down peaceful demonstrators, he ejected extremists from regime prisons, seeking to inject them directly into the bloodstream of the revolution. The Islamic State became the Assad regime’s enemy of choice; an adversary that would supplement regime attacks on nationalist rebels, only engaging regime forces in combat when they sat atop something they wanted, such as an oil field, a military base replete with weapons stockpiles, or a town filled with priceless antiquities.
This symbiotic relationship enabled the Islamic State to sweep through much of Iraq in June 2014, pulling American combat aviation and ground forces back into Mesopotamia and the Levant. Iranian fingerprints were all over the Assad regime’s scorched-earth policies, which enabled this catastrophe. In a diplomatic tactic designed to advance the nuclear talks, the Obama administration pretended that Washington and Tehran were essentially on the same page with respect to the Islamic State. But they were not, and they are not.
Iranian policies in Syria and Iraq have made vast swaths of both countries safe for jihadis. This is an awkward fact for the Obama administration: It now seeks, as part of its strategy to move forward with the nuclear deal it struck with Tehran, to convince Congress that it is not in fact blind to Iranian depredations in Syria and elsewhere in the region. Thus far, the convincing has been all talk, and that is why it is falling short.
Obama might improve his odds in Congress if he can demonstrate that he really gets it when it comes to the Iranian regime. He should act in a manner consistent with the fact that Iran, by virtue of its policies in Syria and Iraq, is in no way an ally, supporter, or collaborator in the war against the Islamic State; and that in Syria, it explicitly promotes the fortunes of the Islamic State by facilitating its client’s survival strategy of wholesale murder.
Secretary of State John Kerry should ask Iran to order a halt to barrel bombings and starvation sieges. If Tehran declines to pressure the Assad regime to do so, the Pentagon knows how to throw sand into the gears of Assad’s mass homicide machine without dropping the 82nd Airborne Division into Damascus. The Defense Department’s own wariness about lifting a finger against Assad ought to be overcome, or at least mitigated, by its obligation to defeat the Islamic State.
Assad and Baghdadi share a common objective: Each wants to be one of the last two combatants left standing in Syria. This is why they generally avoid each other and concentrate instead on eliminating all the alternatives. Assad sees the Islamic State as his ticket back to polite society. Baghdadi sees Assad and Iran as his ticket to supremacy in the Sunni Muslim world. In this light, granting impunity to Assad or Tehran for what the Syrian war has wrought — 300,000 dead, 4 million refugees, 8 million internally displaced, 600,000 besieged, tens of thousands imprisoned, and countless more disabled, terrorized, and traumatized — is more than a moral failure. It is a self-inflicted wound in the war against the Islamic State.
Syrians who mourn for the dead and dying of Douma cry out to the civilized world for protection. To ignore their pleas risks consigning them to the “caliph.” Western leaders may be shamefully unmoved by the moral case to protect Syrian civilians, but they should at least be motivated by the fact that winning the war against the Islamic State requires making it harder for Assad and Iran to aid and comfort the enemy. Doing so might also help persuade a sufficient number of senators and congressmen to sustain the Iran nuclear agreement, for which so many Syrians have involuntarily paid such a high price.