Obama’s Failure on Syria


Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy, specially for wpfdc.org

If you end relying on violence that means you have failed to achieve your goals through other means. Every time a nation decides to wage a war, it proves itself unable to achieve its objectives through diplomatic negotiations, economic sticks and carrots, people pressure, or simply the mere military threat.

The recent announcement by the US administration of the intention to strike Syria should be seen as a serious political failure of President Obama.

To being with, in interpreting the US action, we cannot underestimate the larger political game in the Middle East. In this context, Syria constitutes an important brick in the Shi’a-led coalition–the so-called Shi’a Crescent–which includes Iran, (part of) Iraq, Hezbollah, Hamas, and others.

Seen from this Western/Sunni angle, Syria is just a proxy target for weakening the larger Shi’a movement  and Iran in primis. From this perspective, the attack on Syria should be seen as a strategic move to diminish the offensive potential of the most threatening enemy in the region, rather than as a punitive reaction to any particular wrongdoing of the Syrian regime, despite the official statements about the use of chemical weapons. The attack would have a reason in itself, it would be mainly proactive rather than reactive. But even assuming this more preemptive perspective, the US will-be attack still remains ultimately a failure because it demonstrates that the US was not able to exert the right influence to make Syria behaving as the US would have liked. The reasons to account for this failure are various.

First and foremost, the US was not able to conduct effective diplomatic negotiations either directly with Syria, or indirectly with the alleged Syrian allies. Even more seriously, the multilateral arenas have been emptied of any added value.

With Syria, the chances of direct negotiations have diminished the more the internal civil war prolonged. At the beginning, it was perhaps possible to establish an informal diplomatic channel, but such possibility progressively faded away with the development of the civil turmoil.

A different story is with the Syrian allies. The relation with Iran’s past President Ahmadinejad has been extremely tense from the beginning, so the expectations of a diplomatic dialogue were thin. However, a window of opportunity materialized with the newly elected President Rouhani and his cautious openings, but such opportunity was not seized by the US.

Beyond the Shi’a camp, the main point of reference in the Syrian dossier is certainly Russia. There are other important global players such as China backing Syria, but it is undoubted that Russia represents today for the Syrian regime the main interlocutor of the international community. The US has tried to persuade Russia to align with its strategy, but it was unable to convince President Putin to endorse US’ plan for a number of different reasons. Passing the chance of having Russia on board constituted arguably the main political failure of the US administration for what concerns the Syrian dossier.

Related to the failure to engage with Russia is the other major shortcoming of the US administration: its inability to deal with the Syrian issue within the multilateral framework of the UN. As a matter of fact, the credibility of the US has been badly damaged with the Libyan war and winning a resolution at the UN Security Council for authorizing an armed intervention proved so far unfeasible. The principle of the Responsibility to Protect has been invoked by the interventionists, but their appeal has proved unconvincing. A much more dialogical approach–with a disposition to reciprocal understanding and a readiness to search for shared solutions–should have been pursued.

Secondly, the US was not able to use effectively the economic leverage in order to induce Syrian government to seat at the negotiation table. The US could have promised economic rewards in terms of trade preferential agreements or financial aid directly or through US allies in the region. Alternatively the US could have envisaged further economic sanctions. Both of these strategies were underexplored and ultimately proved ineffective.

Thirdly, the US could have promoted people pressure from below more incisively. The US could have supported the Syrian National Council with more economic and political aid, in order to influence the balance of power on the ground without directly intervening. On this, the US did some efforts, but was unable to help the more moderate component of the Syrian insurgent forces to consolidate, simultaneously sidelining the more radical groups. Moreover, the US could also have promoted a much wider propaganda campaign at the international media level. It did it, but at the end of the day it only managed to convince those who were already convinced. An effective media counter-campaign was enacted which proved relative successful in passing the message that, to a large extent, domestic affairs should be left to local constituencies, that wrongdoings are taking place on both side, and that an hidden agenda is driving (as usually) the American decisions.

Finally, the US could have made a much more effective use of its extraordinary military might to pose an effective threat and so inducing the counterpart to a negotiation. As of today, also this strategy seems to have failed.

All considered, the US proposition to attack Syria remains a huge political failure. The failure is even more serious if we think about the possible consequences of the attack regarding: the death toll on the Syrian ground; the possibility of regional diffusion of the conflict; the likelihood that the conflict–ridden as it is by tribal divisions and transnational infiltrations–will not be solved in the short term with the US military intervention; and the weakening of international law and the prominence of the UN authority.