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 were massacred 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.
Opinion piece by Natalie Nougayrède