'The biggest blot on the Obama presidency' is becoming clear

Two opinion columns in The New York Times this week build on the growing perception that President Barack Obama’s policies toward Syria have contributed to the refugee crisis hitting Europe.

The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has been so brutal on its citizens that many have been pushed to flee the country or join up with extremist groups, including ISIS and the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria.

Obama has been reluctant to intervene in Syria, which is closely aligned with Iran and Russia. In turn, the Assad regime has been able to continue barrel-bombing civilian areas in an effort to regain control of a country that has been ripped apart by civil war.

Columnist Roger Cohen wrote that Syria would be “the biggest blot on the Obama presidency, a debacle of staggering proportions.”

“American interventionism can have terrible consequences, as the Iraq war has demonstrated,” Cohen wrote. “But American non-interventionism can be equally devastating, as Syria illustrates. Not doing something is no less of a decision than doing it.”

Steve Hilton, a former adviser to British Prime Minister David Cameron, wrote in the Times that the world should lay some of the blame on America for the refugee crisis, not just European countries like Hungary that have been reluctant to leave their borders open to refugees.

Graphic showing where Europe's refugees are coming from and where they want to goPBSGraphic showing where Europe’s refugees are coming from and where they want to go

Obama has been heavily criticised for glossing over his “red line” on Syria using chemical weapons. After evidence emerged that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons against his own people, Obama backed off military intervention and instead negotiated a deal for Syria to destroy its chemical weapons.

But since then, inspectors have found evidence of sarin gas in Syria that was not reported to an international chemical-weapons watchdog, according to Reuters.

“While we can argue forever about the causes of conflict in the Middle East, it is impossible to ignore the impact of American foreign policy on what’s happening in Europe,” Hilton wrote.

“It was shocking to see an ‘expert’ from the Council on Foreign Relations quoted on Saturday saying that the situation is ‘largely Europe’s responsibility.’ How, exactly? The Iraq invasion (which could reasonably be described as ‘largely America’s responsibility’) unleashed a period of instability and competition in the region that is collapsing states and fuelling sectarian conflict.”

The Iraq invasion and the reluctance of American defence officials to get involved in Syria has in some ways played directly into the hands of terrorists who convince civilians to join their ranks as a means of protection against Syrian regime forces and the Shia militias the Iraqi government allows inside the country.

As Cohen pointed out in his column: “Nobody loves a vacuum like a jihadi.”

Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the predecessor to ISIS, rose to power after the American invasion in 2003.

Many Sunnis aligned with US forces to combat AQI, a Sunni terror group, in the “Awakening” movement of 2007, but promises of Sunni inclusion ultimately weren’t fulfilled after the US campaign in Iraq ended. This alienated Sunnis from both an increasingly despotic, Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and their former US partners.

The group that eventually became ISIS expanded to Syria and took advantage of the vacuum in both countries, where many Sunni civilians feel like they can’t count on their governments for protection. ISIS has marketed itself as a defender of Sunnis, and some have aligned with the terrorists out of self-preservation as the militants rampage across the Middle East.

“At least acknowledge the consequences of nonintervention: the protracted Syrian civil war, the emergence of a lawless territory ripe for exploitation by the sick zealots of the Islamic State, and the resulting flood of millions of displaced people,” Hilton wrote.

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