The Obama administration has been reluctant to intervene too much in Syria, a policy that is ultimately helping the Islamic State strengthen its hold on parts of the country, according to a former administration official.
Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his forces regularly drop barrel bombs on civilians and commit atrocities against Sunnis, which is a boon to the Islamic State’s (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh) recruitment strategy. ISIS uses the Syrian regime’s violence to convince Sunnis that ISIS is the only group that will protect them.
“This brings you full-circle to the whole question of: What is your strategy? If your objective is to degrade and ultimately destroy [ISIS], then you need to have a strategy that doesn’t produce the opposite effect,” Fred Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former special adviser for transition in Syria under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told Business Insider. “It is the lack of civilian protection that is just fattening the political wallet of ISIL.”
Despite publicly condemning Assad, Obama “feels very strongly that the very significant problems that are faced by people in Syria, for example, are not problems that the United States is going to come in and solve for them,”White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said recently.
But there might be more to Obama’s reluctance to get too involved in Syria — experts have suggested that Obama’s determination to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, Syria’s main ally in the Middle East, most likely informed his decision to refrain from intervening in the Syrian civil war.
Eli Lake at Bloomberg reported earlier this month that Iran is spending much more to support Assad’s embattled regime than the Obama administration has ever acknowledged. The UN special envoy for Syria estimated that Iran spends $US6 billion a year supporting Assad’s government, and other experts estimate that Iran spends much more than that.
Despite this, the Obama administration is charging ahead with Iran nuclear negotiations while it avoids confronting the Assad regime in Syria.
“The president’s priority in getting this nuclear deal nailed down,” Hof said. “The president and his people are intellectually attuned to the fact that Tehran is the principal outside facilitator of mass murder in Syria.
“They are intellectually accepting of the proposition that the Assad regime mass murder is a recruiting tool for ISIL. People in the administration are not lacking in intelligence, they can connect the dots on these things.”
Meanwhile, ISIS continues its campaign for Sunni hearts in minds in Syria by both providing civil services to those living in places like Raqqa, the Sunni terror group’s de facto capital, and offering citizens some amount of protecting from regime forces.
Obama being “reluctant to offend the Iranians at this critical juncture” is leaving Syrian civilians essentially defenseless, Hof said.
“It’s convincing increasing numbers of them that maybe their only resort is to look to ISIL for protection,” he said. “Strategically speaking, this really puts [the US] on the horns of the dilemma. … We are just so rigidly focused on the nuclear side that we’re missing an opportunity to throw sand in the gears of Assad’s killing machine.”
Significantly, Hof doesn’t think that the US confronting Assad would destroy US chances of reaching a nuclear deal with Iran.
“Realistically, in the area of civilian protection, there are military counter-measures that can be deployed that fall well short of invading Syria,” Hof said. “Our military has no shortage of light footprint options in this area. What’s required is what we used to call in the military ‘the guidance of the commander.’
The US has been conducting air strikes in an effort to cripple ISIS forces in Syria, but without a capable and non-sectarian ground force in Syria, this is likely not sufficient to defeat the group. Meanwhile, Assad continues to drop explosive steel barrels full of shrapnel on civilians.
“If the commander in chief, Barack Obama, says, ‘I’ve had enough of this … I want you to do something, give me some options that minimise the slippery slope argument, but give me some options that complicate Assad’s ability to launch helicopters with these horrible barrel bombs, including the resumption of chemical warfare.’ … If the president is willing to do that, I am utterly convinced that thousands of lives can be saved starting very quickly.”
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