Obama's Syria Mistake is now Trump's Problem
Nader Hashemi is an associate professor in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He has taught at the University of Denver since 2008. Hashemi is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies and his research focuses on Islamic affairs, religion and democracy, secularism, comparative politics and political theory and politics of the Middle East.
Two positive developments can be discerned from the Tomahawk missile attack on Syria.
First, Bashar Al-Assad will have to think twice about using chemical weapons again. Donald Trump has drawn his own red line in Syria, and there is now a price to be paid — assuming Trump keeps his word — for dropping sarin gas on civilians.
Secondly, we are now all talking about Syria. Before the missile strike, the general assumption was that Syria no longer mattered. The fall of Aleppo meant that Assad, and his Iranian/Russian allies, had won the war as a fait accompli.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said last week that a new "political reality" had emerged in Syria "that we have to accept." But do we?
The conflict in Syria is a global problem, back at the top of the international agenda, while another American president grapples with its complexity.
President Obama's gross miscalculation in 2013 was to wager that the conflict could be contained within Syria's borders. Reflecting a widely held realpolitik view at the time, political scientist John Mearsheimer argued that Syria did not affect the core strategic interests of the West and was of "little importance for American security."
Looking back, we can see how misguided this assessment was. It was arguably the biggest foreign policy miscalculation of the Obama presidency. Not only has the Syrian conflict deeply destabilized the Middle East, but its ripple effects have dramatically re-shaped politics around the world, including the domestic politics of the United States.
Center of the Middle East
All of the key themes at the heart of the turmoil in the Middle East appear in the Syrian conflict: The problem of political authoritarianism; the struggle for democracy, terrorism and rise of radical Islamic militancy; the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia; the spread of sectarianism; intervention by the great powers; and the egregious violation of human rights.
As the veteran author and Middle East journalist Robin Wright has noted: "Syria is the strategic center of the region, what happens there will affect everybody."
In the early years of the Syrian revolt against Assad, ISIS didn't exist. There were peaceful protesters chanting nonsectarian slogans invoking the ideals of other Arab Spring revolutions.
But as a direct consequence of Assad's merciless brutality, this nonviolent revolt gradually became militarized, and then radicalized, as regional actors intervened to settle old scores. In this context, ISIS emerged. The terror group benefited from the political vacuum that Assad's war crimes had created and from the political apathy of the international community.
These policies had consequences: ISIS became a magnet for global jihadi recruitment. Tens of thousands travelled to Syria from around the world to join ISIS. We now know that the Paris and Brussels attacks in 2015 and 2016 were planned and organized from ISIS-controlled areas in eastern Syria. Dozens of other attacks in major urban centers were inspired by ISIS during the same period.
The conflict in Syria also has produced the greatest mass displacement of people since WWII. Nearly half of Syria's 23 million people have fled their homes.
The refugee exodus into Europe contributed to the rise of right-wing populist parties, giving strength to supporters of Brexit.
A similar dynamic shaped the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump successfully exploited fears about Syrian refugees to emerge as a frontrunner and capture votes. Exit polls revealed the top two concerns that motivated Trump supporters were terrorism and immigration.
The civil war in Syria is not going away. Conflicts that are genocidal in their scope and intensity rarely do. They destabilize regions and spiral out into unintended consequences.
Role of Assad
The conflict in Syria has entered its seventh year, and continues to be characterized by appalling war crimes, crimes against humanity and chemical weapons. Focusing on ISIS while ignoring Assad's war against his own people is a recipe for further conflict and destabilization.
The man responsible for the unrest that has led to half a million deaths and the displacement of 11.3 million Syrian citizens cannot possibly serve as a source of stability over the short, medium or long term.
Assad's presence as the head of the Syrian regime will continue to serve as a recruiting tool for radical Islamist insurgencies. No amount of Russian or Iranian support— or Western appeasement —can alter this reality.
There are no easy solutions to the crisis in Syria. What is certain, however, is that this conflict cannot be contained, as Obama thought. Nor can it be solved by a few missile attacks, as Trump seems to think.
Instead we need a Herculean international effort, rooted in political will, that acknowledges the Syrian conflict for what it is and acts responsibly in the face of it.