The presidents ultimate apathy to chemical warfare resulted, directly and indirectly, to the trail of violence and agony that reached as far as Europe
On Friday, near Palmyra, 14 tanks and an anti-aircraft system were destroyed in an air strike on Isis. Palmyra lately fell to the jihadists after the Syrian regime and its allies diverted forces-out to Aleppo, leaving the ancient city under-defended.
This was a repeat of events last year when, on the advice of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, the regime deployed troops away from Palmyra to the strategically significant metropolis of Aleppo. The airliners struck Palmyra on the same day Suleimani was photographed treading the citys rubble. But the planes werent Russian or Syrian: they belonged to the US-led international coalition. While the US has its own reasons for battling Isis, in this case it was picking up the slack from the regime.
Palmyra has only symbolic significance for Assad. Aleppo was the prize, and, with the world watching impotent, the regime “ve managed to” starve and bludgeon its population into resignation. The regime was aided by Russian bombers and special forces, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah mercenaries, and a horde of sectarian militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan but, above all, it was aided by American indifference.
In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine earlier this year, President Obama said he was very proud of the moment in 2013 when, against the overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom, he decided not to honour his own red line, permitting Assad to escape accountability for a chemical attack that had killed more than 1,400 civilians.
Obama may be alone in this judgment. A year earlier, apparently on a whim, he had defined a red line on the use of chemical weapons at a time when none were being used. The red line was, in fact, a green light to conventional killing. But the regime called Obamas bluff and, predictably, he backed down. No longer dreading punishment, the regime escalated its tactics.
Nearly four times as many people were killed in the two years after the chemical attack as had been killed in the two years before. Obamas abandonment discredited Syrias nationalist opposition and empowered the Islamists. It helped Isis emerge from the shadows to establish itself as a major force. Together, these developments triggered a mass exodus that would displace over half the countrys population. And as the overflow from this deluge started trickling into Europe, it triggered a xenophobic backlash that has empowered the far right across the west.
These, however, werent the only the effects of Obamas retreat. The inaction also created a vacuum that was filled by Iran and Russia. Emboldened by his unopposed advances into Ukraine and Syria, Putin has been probing weakness in the wests military and political resolve from provocative flights by Bear bombers along the Cornwall coast to direct interference in the US elections.