America’s Syria Non-Policy

DENVER – Russia’s bold entry into Syria’s civil war could end badly for its leadership. But in the Middle East, everyone can lose nowadays. Just as Russia might lose for going in, the United States could lose for staying out – or, more specifically, for failing to design, much less pursue, a coherent, goal-oriented policy in the country.

For better or worse, Russian policy in Syria reflects not just a goal, but also a real strategy aimed at achieving it – a strategy that Russian President Vladimir Putin recently advanced by meeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for talks in Moscow. Now that Russia has knocked at least some of Assad’s enemies on their heels, the Kremlin has decided that the time has come to discuss forthcoming political arrangements – or, perhaps more accurately, the time has come to tell Assad what will happen next.

Unfortunately, US President Barack Obama’s policy lacks the same cohesion. To be sure, much of the criticism that his administration’s foreign-policy choices – for example, the decision to stay out of Syria – reflect weakness or indecision is inaccurate. Such accusations do not reflect reality so much as the tendency – which has intensified during the ongoing US presidential campaign – to use Obama as a scapegoat for the world’s problems.

The critics would do well to recall that, less than a decade ago, the international community was crying out for the US to take more care in deciding when – and when not – to act boldly. And that is precisely what Obama has done in Syria: he has assessed the options and concluded that US interests are not served by intervening on the ground in Syria, as they are by, say, US-led airstrikes against the Islamic State.