Why choosing Iran over Syria is a moral and strategic failure for Obama

As the recent profile of Obama advisor Ben Rhodes reveals, the U.S. president is choosing to make peace with Iran instead of challenging Assad’s murderous regime. But, as Michael Petrou writes, none of the results have made America any safer.

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May 19, 2016
A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage during the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

At least now the betrayal is out in the open.

For years, Syria’s revolutionaries have suspected America’s lack of meaningful support for their uprising against dictator Bashar al-Assad was tied to President Barack Obama’s desire to re-engage with Iran.

Iran is Assad’s primary patron (though Russia, which has been bombing on his behalf since September, is a close second). Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are fighting in Syria, as are soldiers of Iran’s proxy Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, along with Shia irregulars from Afghanistan and Iraq whose passage to Syria Iran facilitates.  

Defeat for Assad held the prospect of dramatically weakening Iran’s influence in the Middle East, a primary objective of U.S. foreign policy for decades—until Obama changed it.

In a remarkable New York Times Magazine profile, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, does not explicitly link Obama’s abandonment of Syria with Washington’s outreach to Iran, but he frames the importance Obama placed on rapprochement with Iran in a way that makes it difficult to avoid concluding the two were connected. ­­

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“It’s the centre of the arc,” Rhodes said of the deal America, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany reached with Iran, in which Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Rhodes, whose closeness to and influence on Obama is belied by his modest official title, then explained that engaging with Iran is part of a larger strategy of breaking with established American foreign policy in the Middle East that was overly influenced by Israel and America’s traditional Sunni Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia.

Obama, of course, has not brought any wars to an end. Syria is an inferno. Iraq is in worse shape today than when he took office.

Leon Panetta, who served as both director of the CIA and secretary of defence under Obama, was more direct: “I think the whole legacy that he was working on was, ‘I’m the guy who’s going to bring these wars to an end, and the last goddamn thing I need is to start another war.’ If you ratchet up sanctions, it could cause a war. If you start opposing their interest in Syria, well, that could start a war, too.”

Obama, of course, has not brought any wars to an end. Syria is an inferno. Iraq is in worse shape today than when he took office. What Obama has done is greatly reduce the number of Americans dying in those wars.

This looks like an accomplishment, if one supports Obama’s contention that America should only intervene militarily if its core security interests are at stake: It’s a shame about the 250,000 dead Syrians, but their deaths don’t threaten America the way a nuclear-armed Iran, or an Iran that America must attack to prevent from acquiring nuclear weapons, would.

 It’s a bleak assessment, and despite its cynical gloss of realism, is deeply flawed. Syria is an American—and Western—core security interest. Its disintegration has spawned a refugee crisis that has panicked much of Europe, undermining support for the European Union’s free movement of people, and boosting support for nativist political parties on the continent. The chuckle you hear is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s. 

There is one outgrowth of Syria’s civil war that Obama thinks is sufficiently threatening to American security that it must be met with force: the rise of the so-called Islamic State jihadist group. Islamic State has taken over large chunks of Syria and Iraq and has carried out terrorist attacks across the Middle East and Europe. America is leading a military coalition against it that includes Canada (which is training Iraqi Kurds to fight the group but is no longer bombing it).

Islamic State’s murderous nihilism is rejected by most Syrians. They also know Assad is the most prolific killer in their country. That America stood by when Assad’s forces used poison gas against civilians in 2013, and that America appears to prioritize improving relations with Iran over stopping Assad’s slaughter, pushes Syrians opposed to Assad into the arms of jihadists, says Hamdi Rifai, director of Arab Americans for Democracy in Syria.

“We understand none of these people are our friends, but when our friends are betraying us, then we are left with no one else but our enemies to help us,” he says. The Americans “force us to play a game of realpolitik just as they have. They’re forcing us into the hands of the very people they want us to fight.”

Obama’s refusal to do much to stop Assad’s mass murder is not just a moral failure but a strategic one. The lives of millions of Syrians have been destroyed. It’s impossible to know how much of that suffering America might have mitigated by forcibly challenging Assad, but—unlike when civilians are threatened by Islamic State—it’s barely tried.

And for what benefit to America’s core interests? A potential military confrontation with Iran has been delayed. But in the meantime, European unity has been rattled by Syrian refugees fleeing the war, and jihadism flourishes among those who remain. None of this makes America safer.

Canada’s new Liberal government has said it too wants to re-engage with Iran, although this is unlikely to have much of an effect on Canada’s response to the war in Syria—which is focused on combating Islamic State, refugee settlement and humanitarian relief.

Canada does have an Istanbul-based diplomat tasked with engagement with the Syrian opposition, and Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion met with the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces when he was there in February.

While these relationships are good to maintain, they don’t translate into substantial support for removing Assad or pressuring the dictator to negotiate a transition that might shorten the war. Syrians, it now seems clear, will have to accomplish that without Western help. Obama chose to make peace with Iran. Syria is collateral damage.