from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Obama, the EU, Brexit, and Syria

April 26, 2016

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

President Obama has been in Europe this week. In the U.K., he told the Brits not to think of leaving the E.U. In Germany, he said that

 

So this is a defining moment. And what happens on this continent has consequences for people around the globe. If a unified, peaceful, liberal, pluralistic, free-market Europe begins to doubt itself, begins to question the progress that’s been made over the last several decades, then we can’t expect the progress that is just now taking hold in many places around the world will continue. Instead, we will be empowering those who argue that democracy can’t work, that intolerance and tribalism and organizing ourselves along ethnic lines, and authoritarianism and restrictions on the press -- that those are the things that the challenges of today demand.

 

So I’ve come here today, to the heart of Europe, to say that the United States, and the entire world, needs a strong and prosperous and democratic and united Europe.

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Now, what is it that has been threatening Europe and European unity in the last couple of years? Two things: what Obama correctly called "Russian aggression," and the immense waves of Middle Eastern refugees. In that sense, his lectures to the British and then all Europeans (his speech in Hannover, Germany was grandiosely labelled by the White House an "Address to the People of Europe") are remarkable, for the problems Europe faces are in no small part his own responsibility.

Russian aggression? The weak American response when (quoting Obama again) Russia "has flagrantly violated the sovereignty and territory of an independent European nation, Ukraine" may well have something to do with Russian intervention in Syria. Obama said that this aggression in Ukraine "unnerves our allies in Eastern Europe, threatening our vision of a Europe that is whole, free and at peace." Well, what unnerves our allies is not just the aggression, but their doubts about the alliance, American willingness to meet commitments, and American willpower to stand up to Russia.

But what has really driven Europeans apart in the last year has been the refugee crisis, which has meant the end of open borders. That refugee crisis starts with Syria, where half the population has been driven from its homes and 4.5 million are refugees. Mr. Obama bears some direct responsibility here. Let me quote from the man who was Obama’s coordinator for Syria, Fred Hof (now at the Atlantic Council), writing yesterday:

 

Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, President Barack Obama took a firm, unbending, and principled stand against something not a soul has advocated: that the United States and its allies use ground forces to oust Bashar al-Assad. "It would," pronounced the president, "be a mistake for the United States, or Great Britain, or a combination of Western states to send in ground troops and overthrow the Assad regime." Vanquished once again, this time for the benefit of British viewers, was the customary invade-and-occupy straw man....

 

The president prefaced his remarks with the observation that, "Syria has been a heart-breaking situation of enormous complexity, and I don’t think there are any simple solutions." Syria’s "complexity" is the administration’s last ditch defense for an astounding five year bottom-line: not one single Syrian protected from the merciless, unrelenting, and deliberate campaign of mass homicide and collective punishment inflicted by the Assad regime against millions of Syrians.

Rather than instructing his secretary of defense to give him options to complicate the deadly work of Mr. Assad and mitigate its worst effects, the president consistently rebukes arguments no one makes. No doubt he banks on public indifference and ignorance. No doubt he counts on people nodding sagely when he says Syria is complicated and that it would not be a great idea to invade the place. He knows this is base trickery. Is this simply a matter of trying to fill and kill time between now and January 20, 2017?

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What seems utterly unknowable is why the "heart-breaking situation" of a humanitarian abomination metastasizing into a multi-continent political crisis has never inspired a clear statement of the commander-in-chief’s intent with respect to the protection of Syrian civilians....everything must begin with the commander-in-chief’s belief that mass murder in Syria is morally unacceptable and politically disastrous. He must have a firm desire to do something about it. And his intent must be articulated in unmistakably direct and directive language to the key members of the National Security Council. If Barack Obama’s mind remains closed and his lips sealed, the greatest essay ever on making industrial-strength homicide in Syria harder to do is simply a waste of time for author and reader alike, unless of course Mr. Obama’s successor is the desired audience.

No political progress toward ending Syria’s agony and the horrific hemorrhage of its people is possible without first passing through the portal of civilian protection. As long as Syrian civilians are on the bullseye nothing will be accomplished at Geneva. President Obama and his word-smithing staff may well spend the balance of their White House days dropping rhetorical barrel bombs on imaginary critics even as Bashar al-Assad’s pilots roll the real things off the ramps of Russian helicopters onto children and their parents down below. It is one thing to mislead and score useless points by debating an empty chair. It would be far better if the president and his transatlantic partners were to act in ways consistent with that which they all know to be true: there will be no end to the gushing arterial wound that is Syria as long as Assad and his external supporters target civilians with massive lethality and total impunity.

 

These are tough and angry words, almost despairing words, about Mr. Obama and Syria. Consider again one line: "not one single Syrian protected from the merciless, unrelenting, and deliberate campaign of mass homicide and collective punishment inflicted by the Assad regime against millions of Syrians." And that is precisely why there are 4.5 million refugees, and there will be more. Then Mr. Obama goes to Europe and says how vitally important is European unity, either unaware or certainly unwilling to admit that his handling of Syria helped create the refugee crisis driving Europe apart. Perhaps the British and the other "People of Europe" appreciate and esteem these lectures. Somehow I doubt it.

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