There's only one way to describe US policy toward Syria: self-defeating. Everything the United States said it wants to avoid is actually happening. Its policy of relative inaction has created gruesomely self-fulfilling prophecies. This policy continues more or less unchanged, as negative consequences persist in accumulating.
From the outset, the United States was determined to keep involvement in Syria to a minimum. The reasons were understandable. It feared Syria would explode rather than implode, destabilizing the region. It wanted to avoid a proxy conflict with regional rivals such as Iran. It did not wish to see the carnage in the country degenerate. It wanted to avoid national fragmentation or another failed Arab state in Syria. And, most of all, it feared the rise of al-Qaeda-like extremists amid the chaos.
Therefore a risk-averse president and administration chose to do little, even when several high-ranking officials towards the end of the first Obama term were urging greater engagement. Instead of doing anything significant to change the balance of power on the ground, the administration restricted itself to strategically meaningless humanitarian efforts.
Worse still, it relied mainly on lecturing all of the armed parties to stop doing what they were already doing. It pursued pointless international diplomatic efforts that were utterly disconnected from the logic of conflict on the ground. And the predictable and predicted consequence was that everything that the United States did not want to see happen in Syria was, in fact, facilitated by this woeful American inaction.
The low point to date has been the extraordinary reluctance on the part of the Obama administration to acknowledge the growing evidence of the cautious introduction of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime into the conflict. President Barack Obama's 'red line' in practice proved to be some delicate shade of translucent amber.
All those who have counseled against more robust American engagement in Syria bear a heavy responsibility for the consequences of their ill advice. They said sending more arms to Syria would only expand the conflict. That's happened anyway. They warned about the potential rise of al-Qaeda-like groups. But it is precisely this misguided hands-off approach that inevitably led to the rise of such extremists, at the expense of the woefully neglected more moderate, patriotic Syrian opposition forces. It's a perfect example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And now these same voices have the unmitigated gall to suggest that arming rebels is now even more undesirable given the fact that, as a consequence of their own ill-conceived advice, takfiri groups have indeed risen to prominence. They add that it's now too late to do anything constructive, as if they ever wanted to in the first place!
These critics were wrong in the past, and they're wrong now. Woefully, dreadfully wrong.
It's not too late, because the situation can always get worse. Gains by Salafist-Jihadist groups can still be countered by aid to patriotic forces, and it is not credible American intelligence can't tell one from the other. It's entirely possible to change the strategic equation on the ground in Syria by aiding politically acceptable rebel groups – which most certainly exist – with shoulder-fired missiles, other heavy weapons and no-fly zones. Syrian air defenses are being exposed as significantly overestimated, most recently last Saturday in the second Israeli airstrike this year against a military target inside Syria.
Indeed, if there is to be a political solution, it can only be based on the transformation of the strategic equation on the ground that will provide an incentive for government forces to seek an accommodation. At present, the Assad regime sees no need to engage in any meaningful political process.
And why should they?
Their allies – Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and increasingly the Al-Maliki government in Iraq – are supporting them in every possible way and enthusiastically. Many of them have even introduced fighters on the ground, and most are committed to the struggle as an existential necessity.
Meanwhile, the "friends" of the opposition are providing them some support, but with infinitely less enthusiasm and largess. For none of them is the struggle existential, and they are hampered by all kinds of doubts and fears that don't impede Assad's allies.
So the American policy of relative inaction and diplomatic kabuki shows in multilateral institutions continues to be self-defeating and produce the very results the United States says it most wants to avoid. As for critics of more robust engagement, the evidence is undeniable that their approach has been a disastrous failure, at least in terms of avoiding the consequences the United States says it fears: an expanded conflict, more carnage, the metastasizing of the conflict regionally and the rise of al-Qaeda. As former President George W. Bush might've said, "You're doing a heckuva job!"
Perhaps for friends of President Bashar al-Assad, except Russia, the struggle is existential, whereas for friends of the opposition it isn't. But that doesn't explain how abandoned the Syrian people and opposition forces have been, particularly when Assad's allies are stopping at nothing to keep him in power.
It certainly doesn't explain why the United States persists with what is evidently a self-defeating policy that ensures it has almost no influence in Syria now, and will have even less when the dust settles.
"This isn't our war," some Americans say. Well, then don't complain when chaos spreads, al-Qaeda thrives, atrocities proliferate, and no one cares what the Americans want. You can't have it both ways, folks!
Perhaps the Obama administration sees the Syria conflict as a subset of the broader problem with Iran. If they really do see Syria as a sideshow in the broader question of whether Iran will have to be confronted or an accommodation can be reached, the inaction might be explicable, but it's extremely cynical. It would mean the people of Syria, and their lives by the scores of thousands, are being treated as pawns in a broader 'great game.'
If that's the fundamental explanation for an otherwise bewildering American policy that looks entirely self-defeating, it is both unwise, and unworthy of a great country.