The Haunting: Why the Syria Crisis Will Torment Obama for the Rest of His Presidency

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Just as President Barack Obama was losing the debate in Congress for launching a military strike against the Syrian regime, his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, offered him an escape hatch. Moscow’s proposal that Bashar al-Assad relinquish control of his chemical weapons has given everyone a convenient diplomatic pause to do “something else” — even at the risk of accomplishing nothing of value.

Nobody should be under the illusion that the Russian initiative means that the Syrian crisis is solved. It should be clear to all now that Assad is willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power — his regime and his international backers will block, obfuscate, and delay for all they are worth, while launching a brutal assault to crush their domestic opponents. And when it comes to the political process, they are focused on Syria’s presidential election in mid-2014, which will once again anoint Assad as the “legitimate” president of Syria.

Obama’s pursuit of a diplomatic solution is the path of least resistance right now, both at home and abroad. He has made the issue all about chemical weapons and not about the removal of Assad — a point the Syrian dictator would have clearly noted in listening to Obama’s presidential address on Tuesday night. But all the words and diplomatic initiatives cannot hide one basic truth: The Syrian crisis will not go away — in fact, it will continue to haunt Obama’s presidency for the rest of its days.

Nevertheless, this latest sorry episode contains a lesson for the Obama administration about how to deal with the Assad regime. In order to bring real change in Syria, the White House must state clear goals, isolate the regime diplomatically, and be prepared to enforce these mandates through the use of force, if necessary.

It is this strategy that allowed U.N. inspectors to reach the site of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in five days — not the five months it took them to get into Syria in the first place. It has also forced Russia to scramble to extract concessions from Assad — namely, admitting for the first time he has chemical weapons and opening the possibility of putting them under international control.

Given the history of Russian obstructionism at the U.N. Security Council since the beginning of the Syria crisis, there is every reason to be skeptical of a return to Turtle Bay. But there is a chance that Washington and Moscow’s interests could finally align: In early December, the Russians warned Assad not to put them in an awkward position by conducting a large-scale chemical weapons attack. Now that the Assad regime has done just that, Moscow should be pushed to deliver in order to protect its own credibility.

In the next few days, there will be a struggle between those who want effective U.N. action and those who are looking for another diplomatic time-waster to help Assad escape accountability. It is time to banish the duplicitous talk that has so far characterized the debate at the United Nations. If the world body fails again to affect meaningful change in Syria, its credibility will decline even further. In this regard, the U.N. Secretariat and the U.N. secretary general can play an important role in guiding its members toward an effective U.N. mandate. But the United Nations must also be in a position to move quickly if it is forced to do so.

The United States and its allies should be prepared to take their argument to key countries in the United Nations, including the powerful 120 member non-aligned movement and the non-Security Council BRICs — India, South Africa, and Brazil. By building broader international support, Obama will pave the way for a U.N. Security Council resolution that lays out real consequences for Assad if he does not cooperate.

The United States must not be dissuaded from action by the memories of wars past. This is not Iraq — the Obama administration’s case is just and the evidence is there. The United States may also be helped by the U.N. inspector’s first report, which is rumored to be released in the next week or so.

The White House also must not forget the larger human tragedy occurring in Syria. Whether or not it cuts a deal over the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, it will still have made no progress in stopping the slaughter of Syrians and the radicalization of opposition forces. A political solution lies not with a negotiated settlement brokered by the world’s major powers, but by engaging the majority of fence-sitting Syrians who are now too scared to risk backing either side. This silent majority is crucial to forging a Syrian-led political transition — and they have not been supported enough by the international community.

The entire Arab world is closely watching how Obama handles this crisis. Friendly Arab leaders are increasingly worried about Washington: They have not been consulted adequately about the zigzags of American diplomacy, and are asking how they can rely on the United States if Obama does not have the determination to take on their arch foes, particularly Assad. In the absence of U.S. leadership, they will be tempted to pile on more weapons support to the rebels — without the organizing capability that Washington could bring.

It has become obvious that President Obama needs a real Syria strategy — one that relies on America’s military, diplomatic, financial, and humanitarian assets. Such a strategy must treat Assad like the brutal despot he is, acknowledging that only coercion and diplomatic isolation will convince him to give in to U.S. demands. Congress, through amending the bills authorizing the use of force in Syria, has a chance to insist that the administration produce such a strategy.

Obama should now realize that he cannot simply manage the effects of the Syrian conflict, he has to help resolve it. Otherwise, Assad will keep provoking crises — at the cost of American credibility, and Syrian lives.