By Natalie Nougayrède
30 October 2015
It is a rare thing for a high-level official to admit they got something completely wrong. Frederic Hof, the former special adviser on Syria to Hillary Clinton (as secretary of state), has had that temerity – or that kind of despair. He recently wrote an article (for Politico magazine) headlined “I got Syria so wrong”. It is a painful analysis of how early hopes, in 2011, of seeing Bashar al-Assad overthrown by a popular revolt were either naive or blind. It also contains stark criticism of the Obama presidency, which apparently never fully intended to do anything about Syria’s killing fields, preferring to let the problem fester, unaddressed.
It’s tempting to believe that the latest rekindling of international diplomacy over Syria will lead to a brighter outcome. But a few days before ministerial talks were to begin in Vienna, Hof seemed to dash these hopes at a meeting on Syria’s human rights catastrophe in the House of Commons. The walls were covered withphotos of tortured bodies smuggled out of Syria two years ago by “Caesar”, a military photographer who believed that if the world could see the slaughter going on in Assad’s jails, it would act. Nothing happened. Now Hof says he can see “no evidence yet of a change of policy” from the US side. Basically, his warning is: don’t be fooled by the new round of talks.
The Obama administration may be sending envoys to talks, and even a special forces unit into northern Syria to fight Isis, but it is nevertheless intent on keeping the Syrian dossier at arm’s length. This is what suits its long-held narrative of withdrawing from conflicts, and it is what the American public wants. There are only 14 months of the Obama presidency left, so the likeliest scenario is that the White House will wait this crisis out. The US has mostly outsourced Syria to regional actors, and all the signs are that it is set to outsource it some more, this time to Russia – whatever the human cost.
It should matter a lot that Caesar’s pictures were shown in a committee room of the UK parliament, because this is the parliament that voted down military intervention in Syria in August 2013, in the knowledge that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons on civilians. The British debate on Syria has been marred by Iraq’s legacy. That is why even those in the Labour party who are calling for the establishment of safe zones in Syria say they would prefer a UN resolution first.
Yet asking for a UN resolution on safe zones is a non-starter because Russia and China would veto it. It would mean making any policy hostage to what the Kremlin wants, and that is keeping the Assad system and its killing machine in place.
Hof points out that if one diplomatic precedent must be invoked when looking atSyria, it is not Iraq 2003, but Bosnia 1995. Indeed, before the US and its allies finally decided to act to stop the massacres in Bosnia, there were three gruelling years of hand-wringing, with a long list of excuses brought forward to justify inaction.
As I listened to Hof and looked at those photographs of bodies starved to death, some of them eviscerated, eyes gouged out, skin burned – it was hard not to think that we have slowly become accustomed to Syria’s horrors – almost anaesthetised. Syria had all but faded from global headlines until the refugee crisis hit Europe and then Russia started bombing. But by that time the overarching narrative was about fighting Isis, not about protecting Syrian civilians.
In 2012, when Assad’s military onslaught on civilians intensified, I was waiting for a “Srebrenica moment” – when a crime of horrendous proportions would finally lead to international action. In May that year more than 100 people weremassacred in the Sunni village of Houla by pro-Assad militias. But nothing happened. What did happen was that the Obama administration started leaking to the press that it was preparing a “hub” in Turkey to train Syrian rebels.
When more massacres occurred, the White House started speaking of a “Yemeni scenario”, whereby Assad would be induced to flee his country, just as Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had done. That didn’t materialise either. Later still there were chemical attacks, and Obama performed a U-turn on his commitment to act. Russia seized the chance to set up a chemical weapons disarmament project, which ultimately saved Assad.
There are many actors responsible for the depth of Syria’s tragedy. It is impossible to lay all the blame on Obama. But Frederic Hof is a rare voice coming from within that administration who says that inaction has had a higher cost than action would have had. This is how he puts it: “No one denies the risks of military action. What is however routinely denied are the risks of inaction.” The Obama presidency has opted to manage US public opinion rather than shape events and prevent more horror. Syrians were simply never a priority.
How should the public relate to this now? Not putting too much faith in diplomatic summitry would be a good start: talks are a good way of biding time for those who don’t want to actually do anything. Not giving up on international justice is also important. But facing up to our western inability to care enough about the plight of Syrians will be crucial. As Europeans, we need to reflect on how we have all along believed that most of this mess would ultimately be taken care of by others, in the US or elsewhere. That was delusional, and Europe will pay a high price because it is right on the doorstep of the Middle East.
John F Kennedy once wrote a book called Profiles in Courage, in which he defined the courage of a leader as the capacity to go against the tide of public opinion if larger questions – ones that have to do with upholding fundamental values – are at stake. Syrians have certainly not lacked courage in the face of the Assad regime’s onslaught. We in the west have. We shouldn’t fool ourselves about that.