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Syria, Obama and Trump's 'America first'

Syria, Obama and Trump's 'America first'

The Syrian civil war seems to be nearing its final stage, with the majority of fighting now only taking place in the Idlib province. The conflict is one of the largest humanitarian disasters of recent decades. Yet, one major global player has been painfully absent in the process of conflict resolution: The United States. To some, this may not come as a surprise. President Trump has made it abundantly clear that America first, among others, means that the US will only become (militarily) involved where core national interests are at stake. However, the current lack of involvement by the US actually has more to do with the policies of Trump’s predecessor, President Obama.

Now almost seven years ago, in the aftermath of the chemical attacks in Ghouta on 21 August 2013, appeared the first clear signs that the US was moving to the sidelines of conflict resolution in Syria. A year before, Obama still warned Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line”. This was widely understood as a threat to intervene militarily. When evidence emerged that over 1,400 people had been killed with sarin gas in Ghouta, that line was clearly crossed but no intervention followed. Instead, the US engaged in a diplomatic effort with Russia and the Assad regime to remove Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles, ostensibly to prevent further human rights violations.

Perhaps more striking was that while humanitarian conditions in Syria rapidly deteriorated further after the deal, the Obama administration appeared to be solely concerned with the issue of chemical weapons. Little else mattered. Focusing virtually all efforts on an issue so narrow seemed inadequate to provide the humanitarian protection the US called for. However, a closer look at Obama’s politics suggests that there was more strategic consideration to this than one might expect.

At first glance, the enormous attention paid to the chemical weapons issue seems justified. Several graphic videos of the attacks circulated on social media and the issue received broad media attention. The need to act was obvious. Yet, the Obama administration stayed focused on the chemical weapons issue for months while it was clear that the attacks, although horrible, had caused but relatively few casualties compared to the wider conflict. Was Obama not willing, or not able to do more?

Several attempts had been made through the UN Security Council to establish a ceasefire. All proposals had been vetoed by Russia and China, fearing the West wanted to push for regime change in Syria. The main avenue towards a multilateral solution was in a deadlock for months, but the Ghouta chemical attacks presented a breakthrough. All Council members had an interest in maintaining the international norm against the use of chemical weapons – although Russia still denied Assad had used them. Finally, Obama found a way to act in Syria in a multilateral context.

However, it would not have been the first time for the US to act without Security Council authorization if it felt that humanitarian action was justified. Why not do more and enforce the red line without consent?

Indeed, the expectations created by Obama’s “red line” statement put tremendous pressure on the administration to take military action. But much had changed in Syria since Obama made his statement. As Assad clung to power, Obama’s resistance to military intervention only grew.

It also became clear that key allies such as the UK would not even support launching airstrikes. This placed the burden to intervene almost entirely on the US. In the White House, State Secretary John Kerry and UN ambassador Samantha Power urged the president to keep his word. Obama allegedly responded: “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.”

Still, Obama was aware he risked losing credibility. To be seen as acting against human rights violations, Obama doubled down on the chemical weapons issue. The endeavor had a small but significant impact on the conflict, and progress made to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons would signal concern for the humanitarian situation. At the same time, it relieved some of the pressures to do more. In Obama’s reasoning, a military intervention could not come from the US alone, but Assad was at least held accountable through diplomatic actions.

But Assad was not held accountable. It became clear to Assad that the US had little interest in intervening in Syria. The difficult reality of the deal was that Obama now needed the regime to stay in power to complete the complex removal process safely. The attention shifted from criticizing the legitimacy of the regime to cooperating with it in order to have some impact on the conflict.

At the same time, Russia expanded its support for Assad. Obama’s ability to pressure Assad now became increasingly dependent on Russian strategic interests in the conflict. Russia, on the other hand, showed no interest in holding Assad accountable for any further chemical attacks.

Instead of using its political capital to address broader humanitarian concerns, Obama ended up spending his time and energy on a delayed and incomplete chemical weapon disarmament process. Worse, since the chemical weapons crisis, the US lost its credibility regarding Syria – and with it the ability to contain the Assad regime’s human rights violations. The apparent lack of will to act decisively after the Ghouta attacks ended up moving the US to the sidelines of conflict resolution.

The coming of Trump’s America first made no difference to people in Syria. They experienced what it meant even before Trump was president.