No item looms larger in President Obama’s foreign policy in-box than Syria. It is the problem that will not go away no matter how hard he tries to avoid it.
By distancing himself from the struggle by Sunni Syrians to oust a tyrant belonging to the minority Alawite sect, a member of the Shia division of the Muslim world, Mr. Obama has offended important allies in the Middle East ranging from Turkey to Israel. The Saudi government has become openly exasperated with his policies.
Mr. Obama says it is “someone else’s civil war,” but none of the regional powers agree. Those range from our allies, who want Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad deposed, to Russia and Iran, who want him to hold onto power.
This “civil war” in which numerous outside powers and radical Muslim groups have become involved is bigger than a fight between Syrians. It is a many-sided struggle for dominance in the Middle East, with inevitable consequences for U.S. interests.
In the case of Iran, Syria is the linchpin of its continuing effort to eradicate Israel. Iran has gone all out to help Assad defeat the rebels, and he may be winning, but at a huge human cost.
In a strongly worded op-ed posted on ForeignPolicy.com on Oct. 25, Secretary of State John Kerry charged that Mr. Assad has simply switched from one weapon of mass destruction, poison gas, to another, mass starvation of civilian areas holding out against his forces.
Valerie Amos, the United Nations’ humanitarian chief, says 2.5 million people are beyond the reach of aid, including 290,000 trapped in areas besieged by government forces. The Washington Post reports credible accounts of children dying of starvation in the suburbs of Damascus. Scarlet fever, polio and other diseases are spreading.
These tragedies come on top of more than 100,000 deaths, predominantly among civilians, and the displacement of more than 4 million Syrians, 2 million of whom have crowded into refugee camps in neighboring countries.
The United Nations recognizes a right to intervene when such conditions exist: “If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.” This may include the use of force.
Although the United Nations is blocked from acting on Syria by veto-wielding Russia and China, President Obama declared his willingness to use force without U.N. permission if Syria did not give up its chemical weapons.
He has made no such threat with respect to ending the starvation of innocents. But Secretary Kerry somehow believes that Russia and Iran will now force Syria to give up its starvation policy and allow aid to reached threatened populations. Don’t count on it.
“The world cannot sit by watching innocents die,” Mr. Kerry wrote.
But no one should expect on Mr. Kerry’s boss, President Obama, to lift a finger.
If the president continues to stand pat on the crisis in Syria, the results will come back to haunt him. And us.