Perhaps it’s because Obama’s term is winding down, but in the wake of the recent siege of Aleppo, which brought injury, exile, and death to thousands of Syrian civilians, a late-breaking consensus seems to have emerged that the White House’s Syria policy is a tragic failure. Even opinion makers who generally admire Obama vie to outdo each other in soulfully condemning his Syria policy, while administration officials past and present echo the president’s line that there is little the United States could have done to stop the bloodshed. You could call it virtue-signaling or Kabuki theater—except the president’s critics really do seem authentically baffled by how a man they authentically admire could be guilty of such a terrible blunder.
“I admire Obama for expanding health care and averting a nuclear crisis with Iran, but allowing Syria’s civil war and suffering to drag on unchallenged has been his worst mistake, casting a shadow over his legacy,” writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.
His Times colleague Roger Cohen agrees. “Syria has been Obama’s worst mistake,” he writes. “It’s a disaster that cannot provoke any trace of pride; and within that overall blunder the worst error was the last-minute ‘red line’ wobble that undermined America’s word, emboldened [Vladimir] Putin and empowered [Bashar al-]Assad.”
Putin and Assad’s aerial bombing of Aleppo illustrated for many just how bad Syria had become, as Beltway tweeters vied to express their horror at the image of a 5-year-old boy, Omran Daqneesh, pulled from the rubble with his face bloodied and covered in dust and his eyes insensible. “Broke my heart to write this,” Robin Wright tweeted to promote her New Yorker story on Putin and Assad’s aerial campaign, “The Babies Are Dying in Aleppo.” If Wright doesn’t exactly lay the blame with the White House, she marshals enough evidence from doctors and U.N. officials who discretely point that way. “The existential plight of Syria’s kids is the worst in the world,” she writes. A UNICEF spokesman says about the children born since the opposition uprising began in March 2011 that “some 3.7 million Syrian children under the age of 5 have known nothing but displacement, violence, and uncertainty.”
If anything, Wright, Cohen, Kristof, and their colleagues are guilty of understatement: Bashar al-Assad’s five-year-long war against his own people is the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century. In addition to the half a million killed in Syria, millions of refugees have fled to Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, and many more millions are internally displaced. The overflow from the Syrian refugee crisis now threatens to destabilize Europe. The war is also a strategic nightmare, primarily affecting American allies on Syria’s borders, including Israel, which is most concerned about keeping Iran and Hezbollah from opening a new front on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
So why didn’t the White House enforce its own red line back in 2012? Why haven’t we done anything since to stop Bashar al-Assad? Why won’t we do anything now, aside from fighting a phony war against ISIS? Because of Libya, say some. Obama saw how the unintended consequences of that engagement came out and doesn’t want a replay. Then there’s Iraq, the very war that Obama campaigned against in 2008 to win the White House. His mandate was to get America out of a stupid war, and the last thing he’s going to do is commit his country to more conflict in the Middle East. Life is complicated, folks.
What Kristof, Cohen, Wright, and their colleagues apparently can’t see, even at this late date, is that Obama’s inaction in Syria is not simply part of the hangover from the failed American war in Iraq, or of the president’s personal psychology. There is something entirely practical at stake here, too—namely, the Iran deal. The explanation is, in fact, a simple one: U.S. intervention in Syria against Assad would have made the Iran deal impossible. In fact, U.S. support for Iran’s continuing presence in Syria was a precondition of the deal, according to no less an authority than the president himself. In a December press conference, Obama spoke of “respecting” Iranian “equities” in Syria—which, translated into plain English, means leaving Assad alone in order to keep the Iranians happy.
The connection between Syria and the Iran deal was not particularly hard to spot for anyone in the administration. “Iranian officials told me that even had the diplomats doing the negotiations wanted to stay in talks, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would have pulled the plug,” says Jay Solomon, author of the just published Iran Wars, an account of U.S.-Iran relations. “Obama sent a letter to Khamenei saying he wouldn’t target Assad,” Solomon continues. “And Pentagon officials told us they were concerned that operations in Syria risked undermining the nuclear negotiations.”
Former State Department official Frederic C. Hof agrees. “The administration’s policy toward Assad Syria,” writes Hof, “rests on its desire to accommodate Iran—a full partner in Assad’s collective punishment survival strategy—so that the July 14, 2015, nuclear agreement can survive the Obama presidency.”
Hof, the State Department’s point man on Syria until he resigned in 2012 in quiet protest of the White House’s handling of the war, thinks the president should be honest about his decision. Imagining a version of what Obama might have said, Hof writes, in the president’s voice:
What I want people to understand is that I’ve had to make the hardest of calls. I think the nuclear agreement with Iran prevented a war and opens a door. I’m afraid that if I use cruise missiles or supply anti-aircraft weapons to make Assad pay a price for mass murder, Iran’s supreme leader—who sees Assad as an invaluable agent—will scuttle the nuclear deal. I may be wrong, but that’s the call I’ve made.
In short, the Iran deal wasn’t just about limits on uranium enrichment, inspections of nuclear facilities, and sanctions relief, etc., it was also about the Syrian conflict—in particular, about the United States agreeing to step back and let Iran protect its “equities” in Syria, by whatever means its gruesome proxy saw fit.
It’s curious, then, that many of the voices that are now so critical of the administration’s Syria policy were also among the most vocal supporters of the JCPOA. Here’s Nicholas Kristof shortly after the JCPOA was signed providing the White House with talking points to sell the deal: “If the U.S. rejects this landmark deal, then we get the worst of both worlds: an erosion of sanctions and also an immediate revival of the Iran nuclear program.” Nowhere does he mention the fate of children in Syria. Nor does he in this follow-up with more talking points two weeks later. Recently he wrote an op-ed arguing that Anne Frank today is a Syrian girl—without noting that the Nazi equivalents here are funded and armed by Iran.
Robin Wright lauded the JCPOA as “the Obama administration’s boldest foreign-policy initiative. It marks the first success in dealing with Iran since its 1979 revolution and the prolonged seizure of the American embassy in Tehran.” She told NPR, “What’s been unleashed here is a different kind of process. It’s the beginning of a healing process.”
During U.S.-Iran talks, Wright spent a lot of time speaking with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, whom she says she has known for three decades. She interviewed him several times during negotiations. “Zarif is an affable man with a disarmingly unrevolutionary grin, a quick wit, and the steely tenacity of a debater,” she wrote in a 2014 profile for The New Yorker. But she neglected to ask him about Iran’s war in Syria, which Tehran has been financing since Assad started shooting at unarmed protesters in 2011. Instead, she queried him in a later article about Iran’s potential role in Syrian peace talks. To her credit, she notes that most of the “advisers” Iran has sent to Syria “have been helping the [Assad regime] fight the opposition.” But in her “The Babies Are Dying in Aleppo” article, there is no mention of Iran or its role in helping kill them.
Roger Cohen, who has written several rightly outraged columns the last few years about the administration’s Syria policy, advocated for the Iran deal and criticized those who didn’t as warmongers lined up behind Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “It’s no service to Jews or Israel or Middle Eastern peace, for major Jewish organizations,” wrote Cohen, “to give airtime to Netanyahu on Iran rather than Obama. The alternative to this deal, as Obama said, is war.”
For Cohen, it seems the opposite of conflict is cultural exchange and commerce, which is perhaps why he serves as one of the featured tour guides in the Times’ Travels to Persia business. The JCPOA reopened Iran for investment, as Cohen explained, when the deal was implemented in January. “For Iran, the arrival of ‘implementation day’ means the lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions and access to about $100 billion in frozen assets. A big nation is open for business again, back in the global financial system and world oil market.”
Here, Cohen has unintentionally put his finger on why those who supported the Iran deal and criticize Obama’s Syria policy see no connection between the two. It is because business is frequently not the opposite of war. In fact, the reality is that giving money to a state at war means funding that state’s wars.
The reason that so many journalists and opinion-makers of good conscience cannot make the connection between the Iran deal and the Syrian war is because the truth is too awful. The president’s policy is not simply a matter of a lack of vision or political will. The money Iran received through the JCPOA, as well as the $1.7 billion paid in ransom for American hostages, has helped fund Iran’s war in Syria—which the president proclaimed to be Iran’s business and not ours.
I have no doubt that the people tweeting pictures of Omran Daqneesh and all the other children who have died in Syria and will continue to die there are sincere in their horror at the suffering of innocents, just as they were sincere in their belief that the JCPOA was the best available hedge against a future war or the specter of an Iranian bomb. In Obama’s defense, he at least understood the price of an agreement. Sadly, his supporters-turned-critics didn’t—and they still don’t.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).