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Osama Abu Arshid

Chuck Hagel exposes Obama over Syria

President Obama's U-turn after Assad used chemical weapons undermined US 'leadership', said Hagel [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 February, 2016

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Comment: The former defence secretary pointed out the US has no cohesive strategy on Syria, and it has cost Syrians dearly, writes Osama Abu Arshid.
There were no secrets or surprises in what former US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel said on National Public Radio - but his criticism of President Barack Obama's approach on Syrian remains of key importance.

This is a senior official who has served in the Obama administration, and was a member of the US National Security Council. He is as much of a Washington insider as you can get. Hagel served as defence secretary under Obama, between February 2013 and February 2015.

In his remarks at the turn of the year, Hagel said that Obama missed an important opportunity in Syria in August 2013, when Bashar al-Assad's regime used chemical weapons against his own civilians.

Obama had warned the regime that this would constitute the crossing of a "red line" that would require a US military response.

Indeed, on August 31, 2013, Obama told the American people that the Assad regime had stepped over that red line, and that the United States must respond militarily. But military force would only be applied with the consent of Congress - which did not vote on the matter, due to the intractably entrenched positions of both Republicans and Democrats, despite the fact that a majority of each would have been favour of "a limited military response".

Hagel wasted few words in his assessment - that Obama's way of dealing with Syria harmed the reputation of the president as "Commander-in-Chief" and raised doubts among US allies and others over the reliability of the White House.

"Can you trust his words?" Hagel asked. "Can they rely on his words? Does he really mean what he says?"

Obama had undermined public confidence in his leadership when he went against his previous "red line", Hagel inferred.

Hagel suggested that Obama and his advisers felt that they committed themselves, but with no intention for action, with the statement about "the red line". Therefore, when Assad regime crossed that point, they found themselves in an awkward situation about how to evade its consequences; the solution was to pass the ball to Congress.

Incidentally, Obama did not need authorisation from Congress, as such action is considered within his executive authorities, as long as military action was limited to airstrikes.
The administration found the Russian offer to destroy Syria's chemical weapons was a way to save dignity

No president before him asked for such a mandate. Even Obama himself did not ask for a similar mandate in Libya in 2011, or later in Iraq and Syria in 2014.

It was clear that Obama passed the problem on to Congress, knowing they would not be able to come to agreement, with many members in the swing of 2014's midterm elections.

True, the administration found the Russian offer to destroy Syria's chemical weapons was a way to save dignity, but Hagel insisted that Obama's "red line" mandated the use of military force in case of violation, even if such action was limited. The planned response to a violation of this "red line" was never meant to be about getting rid of Syria's chemical weapons' inventory.

The importance of this can be seen by events in Syria today, and the failure of Geneva negotiations between the regime, backed by Russia and Iran, and the opposition, backed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

From the outset, it was clear that Geneva would result in catastrophic failure, as its foundations were far from solid, especially regarding any commitment to Security Council resolution 2254 which requires the cessation of indiscriminate bombing carried out by the regime and its supporters, the lifting of sieges and full access granted for humanitarian assistance to the Syrian population.

US Secretary of State John Kerry even went to Riyadh last month to convey Russian-Iranian conditions for the Syrian opposition, both in terms of the nature of the opposition negotiating team and the structure of the talks.

The demands included a call for the opposition to accept Assad remaining in power, and his right to run in any future elections.
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According to the statements of some opposition figures, Kerry threatened to cut support from them if they did not accept the conditions, although their demands - other than Assad's immediate departure - are stipulated in UN resolutions.

Moreover, the United States, and Obama himself, have said they do not see Assad as a legitimate president, and  demanded his departure from power since August 2011.

On Wednesday, when UN envoy Staffan de Mistura announced the suspension of negotiations until February 25, Kerry continued to push a confused Washington line, accusing the Syrian regime and its Russian ally of trying to impose a military solution and undermine peace efforts, especially in Aleppo and its surrounding countryside.

But what are Kerry's alternatives if his appeals to Russia, Iran and the Assad regime do not work?

Nothing, really. He is betting on renewed negotiations later this month, and it is not at all unlikely that he will again pressure the Syrian opposition to accept the conditions of the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies - especially in light of their recent military achievements.

Hagel's assertion, meanwhile, over the lack of a cohesive White House strategy in Syria is a firm fact - this administration lacked decisiveness in Syria from the beginning, and, regardless of the reasons, this opened the door to Damascus to Iran, and later Russia, who filled the void created by the absence of American leadership.
Obama stressed his conviction that the US was not in a position to impose a military solution in Syria

The Obama administration did not provide enough support to the Syrian opposition, nor allowed other allies to provide qualitative military support to them, such as surface-to-air missiles, to face the oppression of Assad's aircraft - before Russia's involvement last September upset the balance of power.

While Russia entered the battle in Syria ostensibly to save the Assad regime, Moscow's client Obama came to us with a nonsense philosophy, saying: "Mr Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength, but out of weakness because his client, Mr Assad, was crumbling, and it was insufficient for him to send arms and money."

Obama warned Moscow as well as Iran that they were getting themselves "stuck in a quagmire", marginalising the majority of Syrians, and offending Sunni Muslims across the region.

He again stressed his conviction that the US was not in a position to impose a military solution in Syria. Therefore, it chose to work with a "moderate opposition" to build a "coherent and solid Syria" after the inevitable "collapse of the Assad regime", according to Obama's statements on October 2, 2015.

Neither Russia nor Iran seem to be irretrievably stuck in a quagmire from which they cannot extricate themselves, nor does the Assad regime seem to be on the brink of collapse - but it is now the United States which is the one suggesting, implicitly, that Assad will remain, and that he might run in  future elections, because Washington's current priority is to fight IS.

Worse still, the president of the most powerful nation on earth, who warned Russia and Iran over defeat in Syria, has transformed his secreary of state, his foreign minister, into an Iranian-Russian postman, carrying and delivering their conditions and even adopting them himself.

Let's go back to what Hagel said. And it's not as if this is something he's been saying only since he left the administration. Hagel had sent a memorandum to National Security Advisor Susan Rice, late in September 2014 - ie: as defence secretary, demanding a "clearer vision about what can be done towards the Assad regime".

The memorandum indicated that Assad's regime benefited from US airstrikes on IS and the Nusra Front, as Damascus was able to focus on weakening what Washington calls the "moderate Syrian opposition" it supports.

But what was the fate of this memorandum - which predicted a fiasco in Syria due to the lack of an American strategic vision and the diminishing Allied confidence in the US?

He hinted at an answer in the NPR interview - the memorandum seems to have been ignored.

Those whose hopes lie exclusively in the capacity or inclination of the United States to sort anything out are putting all their eggs in one basket - and a basket with holes in, at that.
Ask Palestinians about it, they are the experts after experiencing this frustration for decades. Or ask Syrians and Arabs today, about bargaining with Iran and Russia over their region - and their future.
Osama Abu Arshid is a Palestinian writer and analyst based in Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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