Right Angles: Syrian refugee crisis: Symptom of the U.S. ceding its influence
President Obama has directed his administration to accept thousands of new Syrian refugees this fiscal year. Benefits include Medicaid and a green card. Television images of packed trains and drowned children make this appear noble and compassionate. Sadly, the refugee problem is largely a symptom of the Obama administration’s failure to act when it could have made an impact. Instead, the Russians are asserting their will in Syria, while our leaders lament the plight of millions of people.
As in the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine, President Obama neglected to act decisively in Syria when there was an opportunity to support freedom. President Vladimir Putin has exhibited no such hesitation in either case, sending troops and quickly bolstering allegiances with supporters. In Syria, President Bashar Assad is firmly ensconced again and all who stood in opposition face a grim fate.
In 2011, President Obama called for Assad to step down and bring an end to the violence when civil war erupted in Syria. Mr. Obama asserted that the Assad regime should be replaced by a transitional governing body, including members of the opposition, which would hold free and fair election. Our government even armed rebel groups about whom we knew little, hoping they would remove Assad for us. This was a total detachment from reality and responsibility.
The Assad family has retained exclusive power in Syria for decades because that’s what the Russians and the Iranians wanted. As both those countries struggled economically, propping up Assad was cheap insurance to help protect their vested interests. The Russians need access to the warm-water port of Tartus. The Iranians want to retain their “bridge to Hezbollah” in Lebanon.
Unable to see the big picture and unwilling to take risks, President Obama squandered the chance to change the dynamic in the region. He didn’t intervene at a time when Assad was on the ropes and his international allies were waiting to see what the U.S. would do. In effect, he neglected to foster the chance for Syrians to have a say in their future. Now Russian bombs and artillery shells are raining down with those unleashed by their own government.
Totally outmaneuvered by Putin, President Obama can only scold the Russians with ridiculous assertions that Russia will “lose more than it gains” and find itself censured by the international community. That sounds like what the president said after the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine. Apparently Putin’s contempt for Obama is unabated.
There’s no doubt that the civil war in Syria will worsen and the flood of refugees will increase. Changing that now is a daunting prospect. Putin knows Obama won’t risk a direct military confrontation against Russia for the sake of Syria. The Russian leader calculated that with quick action, he could establish Russian as a new hegemon in the Middle East while the U.S. cedes influence in Iraq and Egypt. It’s a chess match for Putin.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest chided Putin. “I don’t thing President Putin is playing chess, he’s playing checkers … by making the tactical decision to ramp up their support for the Assad regime, Russia is being sucked into a sectarian civil war, essentially a quagmire.” That statement is especially foolish since Iraq just announced the establishment of a joint intelligence gathering center with Iran, Syria and Russia.
President Obama continues to declare, “We, the nations of the world, cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion.” When did the conflict and coercion ever stop? Clearly the Russians and the rest of our adversaries are partial to the “old” ways.
We are sure to see many more sad television images of refugees packed in boats and trains. But administration officials lamenting the plight of Syrians fleeing the violence in their country rings hollow. While most of these people truly need compassion and assistance, directives to accept ever-increasing numbers amounts to a “Band-Aid on a bullet hole.” We’re simply treating the symptoms of foreign policy blunders.
Leadership requires timely and decisive action. President Obama chose to defer U.S. power and influence, hoping the international community or some band of rebels would bring about change in Syria. Now the Russians are applying their growing power and influence to institute their version of change. I’m guessing we’ll be offering Medicaid and green cards to a plethora of Syrians in the foreseeable future.
James D. Kellogg is an engineering consultant and the author of “Radical Action: A Colt Kelley Thriller.” Look for the novel on amazon.com and visit JamesDKellogg.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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