When President Obama brags about defying the foreign policy establishment to craft Syria policy, he probably doesn’t have people like Vicki Aken and Ahmed Mestow in mind.
Obama recently said in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic that he was “very proud” of his decision not to bomb Syria after its dictator, Bashar Assad, killed 1,400 or more people in a chemical gas attack. He said he has been criticized because he refused to follow the “playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment,” which would have counseled greater U.S. intervention. The president believes he should be credited for having the fortitude to sidestep a potential quagmire.
Aken is Syria country director for GOAL, one of the world’s largest humanitarian aid organizations, based in Ireland, which amazingly manages in the midst of war to keep providing fresh water and bread to as many as 1 million desperate people inside Syria. Mestow, a Syrian, worked for GOAL inside Syria for three years before he had to flee to Germany, after being threatened by both the Assad regime and its Islamist enemies.
They visited The Washington Post this week. Their views on U.S. policy differ from Obama’s.
Mestow is a civil engineer, a father and a former construction manager in Bahrain, who remembers when the protests against Assad’s brutal dictatorship began in 2011. He remembers peaceful crowds of thousands of people demonstrating at the university in Aleppo, none of them with weapons. And he remembers how Assad responded with violence, with accusations that anyone opposing the regime was a terrorist — and even, Mestow says, with the release from Syrian prisons of genuine terrorists who went on to seed the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
He also remembers the day that Obama cites with pride — when the U.S., after saying the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that Assad should not cross, decided not to respond militarily. “My people were asking, OK, where is the red line for America?” Mestow said. “It’s not chemical weapons — but how about the ‘barrel bombs’? How about the snipers? How about a half-million people killed?”
The barrel bombs are a feature of Assad’s war against his people — kegs full of shrapnel, nails and other sharp pieces of metal that his helicopters drop on civilians. Assad and his Russian allies have made a habit of targeting clinics and hospitals, to the point that Syrians beg GOAL not to bring health facilities to their villages, said Mark Bartolini, chief executive of GOAL USA.
The snipers are Syrian soldiers who make a sport out of their job, Mestow said. And the half-million killed? Well, no one knows for sure how many of Syria’s prewar population of 22 million have died. The United Nations and other groups kept tabs for a while, reaching 250,000, and then stopped counting — so for more than two years, we’ve been writing “more than 250,000.” Certainly the number is far greater.
Meanwhile, at least half of all Syrians have been forced from their homes. More than 4 million have become refugees; thousands more are trapped at the Turkish border, unable to leave. Hundreds of thousands have fled to Europe. Together, those refugees and the terrorist attacks spawned by the Islamic State, which took root in the chaos of Syria’s civil war, have fueled a xenophobic politics in Europe unlike anything the continent has seen since World War II.
Given these consequences, you have to wonder whether Obama really takes pride in his policy, or is trying to convince himself.
The White House argues there is nothing useful the U.S. could have done, though along the way Obama’s senior advisers pushed a series of options: destroy the helicopters dropping those barrel bombs, provide training or equipment for moderate rebels, create a safe zone where rebels and displaced people could regroup.
Aken, who moved to the Turkish side of the Syrian border in 2014 to take charge of GOAL’s aid effort, remembers how Syrians then still believed the United States would create a safe zone.
“They would say, ‘Of course America is going to do something. They have to,’ ” Aken recalled. “It was heartbreaking because I knew the policy wasn’t going to change. But that was their only hope.”
Aken said Syrians’ last “glimmer of hope” disappeared when Russia intervened, attacking civilians with a force that was “so much more powerful and targeted.”
In the Washington arguments over doctrine and America’s role, it’s easy to forget that a country is being destroyed. When I asked if it could be put back together, Aken, who previously worked in Sierra Leone and South Sudan, said she thought the talent and resourcefulness of the Syrian people could help them overcome a lot, if the war ended soon enough.
“If it goes another five or 10 years, then no,” she said. “There won’t be anyone left.”
Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Washington Post.