Opinion: West fails to follow through in Syria

July 18, 2013


— One of the worst recurring features of U.S. foreign policy is a process that might bluntly be described as “seduction and abandonment.” Now it’s happening in Syria.

The seduction part begins with an overeager rhetorical embrace. Nearly two years ago, on Aug. 18, 2011, President Obama first proclaimed “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” He didn’t back up his call for regime change with any specific plan, but this hasn’t stopped him from repeating the “Assad must go” theme regularly ever since.

The next stage is a prolonged courtship with ever-deeper implied promises and commitments. The CIA began working with the Syrian opposition in 2011, and has been providing training and other assistance. When the Syrian opposition was wooed by other suitors (say, Turkey and Qatar), the United States chased those rivals away with renewed avowals of affection.

Then comes the formal engagement. On June 13, the White House announced it would provide military aid to the Syrian opposition because the Assad regime had crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons. The rebels began preparing warehouses to receive the promised shipments — hopeful that at last the United States was serious about its intentions.

And then? Well, this is a story of unhappy romance, so you know what comes next. It’s what 19th-century English novelists called “the jilt.” To quote a New York Times story published last weekend, it turns out “that the administration’s plans are far more limited than it has indicated in public and private.”

Imagine for the moment that you are a Syrian rebel fighter who has been risking his life for two years in the hope that Obama was sincere about helping a moderate opposition prevail not just against Assad but against the jihadists who want to run the country. Now, you learn that Washington is having second thoughts. What would you think about America’s behavior?

Let me quote from a message sent by one opposition member: “I am about to quit, as long as there is no light in the end of the tunnel from the U.S. government. At least if I quit, I will feel that I am not part of this silly act we are in.” A second opposition leader wrote simply to a senior American official: “I can’t find the right words to describe this situation other than very sad.”

An angry statement came this week from Gen. Salim Idriss, the head of the moderate Free Syrian Army. After Britain, like the U.S., backed away from supplying weapons, he told the Daily Telegraph newspaper: “The West promises and promises. This is a joke now. ... What are our friends in the West waiting for? For Iran and Hezbollah to kill all the Syrian people?”

What’s happening in Syria isn’t a pretty sight, as the moderates struggle to survive without the expected Western aid. Last week one of Idriss’ commanders, Kamal Hamami, was gunned down in Latakia by extremists linked to al-Qaida. This week, the same extremist group overran a Free Syrian Army warehouse just south of the Turkish border. Having spent hundreds of billions of dollars to stop al-Qaida in faraway Afghanistan, you might think the U.S. would try to check the terrorist group in Syria, but no.

The moderates are trying to hold on as the country crumbles. In the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood of Aleppo, a Free Syrian Army commander named Abdel-Jabbar Akidi has tried to prevent extremists from blockading food supplies to civilians who have supported the regime. He’s also trying to stop a war between rival Shariah courts in the northern suburbs of Aleppo. This is a commander who has been pleading for almost two years for serious help from the West, apparently in vain.

The story that’s playing out now in Syria is so familiar that it’s almost a leitmotif of American foreign policy. Washington wants to see a change of government so it encourages local rebels to rise up. Once these rebels are on the barricades, policymakers often get cold feet, realizing that they lack public support. This process happened in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Bay of Pigs in 1961, the Prague Spring of 1968, the contras program in Nicaragua in 1984. It happened in Lebanon, Laos, southern Iraq ... make your own list.

At the end of 19th-century novels, the seducer who abandons his flirtation usually gets what he deserves: He is shamed and ultimately ruined, while virtuous and steadfast characters are rewarded. But it doesn’t happen that way in foreign policy. 

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 10 months ago

Many politicians and ordinary people in other parts of the world do not consider the United States to be a reliable ally under any circumstances. Promises, promises, and more promises are made by the politicians of the United States to people in other parts of the world, but what's really on their minds is the next election. They are still considering which action will result in re-election, even after a promise has been made. And they don't seem to be too worried about what will happen after their term in office is complete.

Abdu Omar 4 years, 10 months ago

This, like the events in Afghanistan when the Soviets pulled out, is a recurring nightmare for those who wish democracy and progress in their land. Bush 1 did it to the Afghani people and Obama is doing it again. My support for him is non-existent because he is not a leader and is not a good president.

The Syrian people want to rid themselves of this tyrant Assad and normal American Policy of wanting Democracy throughout the world is failing because Obama is failing. Having an Arab democracy and one of our allies in the Arab world would be a boon to America. We would establish something new to add to our list of friends. But, no.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 10 months ago

That would starve the Arabs of dollars, but China is a huge and developing nation that represents a full 20% of the world's population and it is turning into a huge buyer of crude oil, so they would be awash with Chinese yuan, which is likely to be a much better currency to hold long term than the United States dollar.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 10 months ago

"most likely involved in 9/11" - What little credibility you had has been reduced even further with a comment like that.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 10 months ago

It is true that there is no chance that Israel had anything to do with 9/11, but that claim has been around for years. The strange thing is how many people actually believe it.

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