Obama has ignored Syria for too long: it’s the rise of Isis, stupid – now help

It’s time for him to do the right thing by arming moderate rebels, imposing a no-fly zone and expanding military action beyond Iraq


Blanket, cold-hearted realism doesn’t work when networked, cold-hearted terrorism does. Photo illustration: DonkeyHotey / Flickr via Creative Commons



Barack Obama is embarking on a global course correction, if not an outright reversal: the policy of “don’t do stupid stuff” – the non-interventionism so praised by the Farid Zakarias and Tom Friedmans of the world – is getting forced out, albeit in the typical Obama fashion of admitting nothing and never going fast or far enough.

And to hear the Chuck Hagels and John Kerrys of the administration tell the story for him, it’s all the fault of the Islamic State (Isis), which is “beyond just a terrorist group”, “an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated” – a feat which, realistically, will require some intervention not just in Iraq … but in Syria.

It’s difficult to do the right thing when you’ve already fucked up so badly. When the Obama administration refused to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria in 2011, the indifference gave rise to despair and forced people to abandon their nonviolent ways to defend themselves, effectively transforming the nonviolent protest movement into an armed resistance. Obama’s refusal to then support the rebels following the advice of his then-secretary of state, among other officials, created a vacuum that was gradually filled by extremist elements emerging out of the woodwork and jihadists pouring across the borders, a combination that paved the way for the emergence of the newly troubling and feared Isis.

Now, Isis has a vision being carried out – effectively, if with pure evil – by technocratic leaders with succession plans, flexible but enduing structures, and major funding, with major operations based out of its hub in Syria. Soon, some of its acolytes might make like Hezbollah and run legitimate businesses across multiple countries that secretly fund terror; some already appear to be attracted to the radicalized appeal of Isis leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declaring a new Caliphate.

No wonder Obama is finding it so difficult to justify a policy of minimal engagement anymore – perhaps even to himself. Blanket, cold-hearted realism doesn’t work when networked, cold-hearted terrorism does. The line between realism and cynicism has always been too thin, and has long been crossed by the Administration. While realism is laudable, cynicism ends up producing the very outcomes that realism intends to avoid. Letting a region take care of itself is impossible to allow when your spies are telling you about the rise of a terror group across the world, including the West – of terrorists that are effectively becoming a global movement of disaffected Muslims everywhere.

Some “realists” are advocating cooperation with Bashar al-Assad. But that wouldn’t just being doing “stupid stuff” – it would be downright delusional, since cooperating with dictators who abuse their own people is exactly what gives rise to extremist anti-Western movements.

The only way for Obama to stop doing stupid stuff with his foreign policy is to arm moderate rebels in Syria, to bomb Isis bases in both Syria and Iraq and to finally impose a no-fly zone on the Assad regime. This combination of tactics could allow the Syrian opposition – which has thus far been unable to govern the liberated areas due to Assad’s use of aerial strikes, including barrel bombs, scud missiles, and, on occasion, chemical weapons and poison gas – to move in and work with the local councils to begin returning the basic services to the local communities, bringing a measure of relief to the local civilian population. Imposing a no-fly zone also avoids having to supply advanced weapons to rebels, including TOW missiles and MANPADs, thus minimizing the risk of having them end up in the wrong hands. Still, the opposition will have its work cut out for it in terms of ensuring effective governance of the areas under their control, especially when it comes to reaching agreements between Islamist and secularist currents. But by controlling the flow of humanitarian aid and the funds required for the reconstruction processes, the administration and other members of international community could exercise leverage to allow for compromises to be reached.

Obama already plans to take a leading role at next month’s UN General Assembly, where strategies for holding back Isis will be a top priority. But Western and Middle Eastern leaders need to begin preparing for a peace conference following such strikes, because a real transition plan for a post-conflict and post-Assad Syria needs to be developed. Talks will not be easy (and could drag out for months if not longer), but if the regime’s ability to wreak havoc on rebel communities is curbed by strikes and the economic blockade against it is strengthened, time will not be on its side – rendering hopes for an eventual breakthrough more realistic.

It’s about time for the Obama administration to do the right thing. It’s about time, after doing so much stupid stuff and aiding in the rise of Isis, to begin resolving a conflict that has killed close to 200,000 people in less than four years, and produced millions of refugees, becoming the worst humanitarian disaster since the Cold War.

Yes, American strikes may make disaffected Muslims more eager to join Isis. Yes, we may be witnessing the birth of a new Islamic sect. But Barack Obama needs to stop fighting the symptoms while embracing the disease – to become a true realist and not a cynical one. Sectarian violence was not inevitable in Syria, as some analysts argued at the beginning of the revolution, but indifference and cynicism made it so. Obama needs to engage in the region with a positive mindset, knowing that he can actually make a positive difference.