New York Times Columnist: Syrian War “Debacle” Has Become “Obama Administration’s Shame”

The situation in Syria is now “a debacle of such dimensions” that it stands out as the “Obama administration’s shame,” New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote Monday.

Cohen, who frequently supports President Barack Obama, faulted the White House for deciding to tacitly accept Russia’s plan for Syria: back the regime of Bashar al-Assad, attack the moderate rebels, block any Western attempts to replace Assad, and “use diplomatic blah-blah in Geneva as cover for changing the facts on the ground.”

After summarizing the situation in Syria after five years of war, Cohen listed the serial excuses the administration has offered for its inaction:

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is now virtually encircled by the Syrian Army. A war that has already produced a quarter of a million dead, more than 4.5 million refugees, some 6.5 million internally displaced individuals and the destabilization of Europe through a massive influx of terrorized people is about to see further abominations as Aleppo agonizes.

Aleppo may prove to be the Sarajevo of Syria. It is already the Munich.

By which I mean that the city’s plight today — its exposure to Putin’s whims and a revived Assad’s pitiless designs — is a result of the fecklessness and purposelessness over almost five years of the Obama administration. The president and his aides have hidden at various times behind the notions that Syria is marginal to core American national interests; that they have thought through the downsides of intervention better than others; that the diverse actors on the ground are incomprehensible or untrustworthy; that there is no domestic or congressional support for taking action to stop the war or shape its outcome; that there is no legal basis for establishing “safe areas” or taking out Assad’s air power; that Afghanistan and Iraq are lessons in the futility of projecting American power in the 21st century; that Syria will prove Russia’s Afghanistan as it faces the ire of the Sunni world; and that the only imperative, whatever the scale of the suffering or the complete evisceration of American credibility, must be avoidance of another war in the Middle East.

These excuses—which Cohen described as “feeble evasions masquerading as strategy”—has led to”United States policy becoming Putin’s policy in Syria.”

It also has alienated potential regional partners:

Obama’s decision in 2013, at a time when ISIS scarcely existed, not to uphold the American “red line” on Assad’s use of chemical weapons was a pivotal moment in which he undermined America’s word, incurred the lasting fury of Sunni Persian Gulf allies, shored up Assad by not subjecting him to serious one-off punitive strikes and opened the way for Putin to determine Syria’s fate.

Putin policy is American policy because the United States has offered no serious alternative. As T.S. Eliot wrote after Munich in 1938, “We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us.” Syria has been the bloody graveyard of American conviction.

The United Nations released a report earlier this week that documented the Assad government’s systematic torture and killings of prisoners, one of the many reasons the report accused the regime of crimes against humanity.

Other regional experts have also recently criticized the Obama administration’s inaction in Syria. Emile Hokayem, a Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote last week that the American “betrayal” of the anti-Assad rebels ensures that Assad “will lock in significant political and military gains” this year. Foundation for Defense of Democracies research fellow Tony Badran wrote that the administration’s acquiescence to growing Iranian aggression in the  Middle East has amounted to its “legitimization of Iranian spheres of influence throughout the region, especially in Iraq and Syria.” And an editorial in The Washington Post last week charged that the White House’s passivity towards Assad amounted to the U.S. “enabling … war crimes.”

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