Turkey’s devastatingly effective exercise of military power in Syria’s Idlib province has not only provided instant relief to three million Syrian refugees who’ve been bombed mercilessly by Russian warplanes, and stalked by Assad regime forces and Iranian militias on the ground, it has also exposed former US President Barack Obama’s timidity in not enforcing his famed “red line.” Which begs the question: how many lives might have been saved with minimal international military intervention.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime,” President Barack Obama said in August 2012, “that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”
A year later, Assad called Obama’s bluff in using chemical weapons, specifically sarin gas, to kill more than 1,400 non-combatants in Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Video images of young children, women, and men wreathing on the ground in convulsive fits before eventually choking to death on their own vomit were viewed almost instantaneously by a distraught and shocked global audience.
If there was ever an ethical justification for the United Nations to invoke a military intervention on the basis of Responsibility-to-Protect (R2P), then the gassing deaths of innocents was most definitively it.
If there was ever an ethical justification for the United Nations to invoke a military intervention on the basis of Responsibility-to-Protect (R2P), then the gassing deaths of innocents was most definitively it, but Russia’s seat on the Security Council would never have allowed that to happen. There’s no doubt Syria now ranks as one of the UN’s most humiliating and consequential failures to halt and prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.
Nevertheless, the leader of the world’s sole military superpower had laid bare his “red line.” In no circumstances would the US accept the use of chemical weapons, according to then President Obama, but when the moment came to deliver on his promised threat, he blinked, took a step back and then deflected responsibility to the opposition party controlled Congress, where he knew the request for military force would be denied. The bill died on the floor of the House without coming to a vote.
There’s little doubt that it was the American public’s opposition to armed intervention, rather than principled or military considerations that was to blame for Obama allowing the Syrian dictator to get away with genocide-scale mass murder. What the besieged Syrian people received instead was further global apathy in the form of excuses, and more bombs and bullets raining down upon them by Russian warplanes and mercenaries.
In his book, “The World as It Is,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former national security advisor, claims Obama chose against using force to punish Assad, arguing that Syrian air defenses were far too formidable and couldn’t be taken out without a massive US ground force providing support on the ground, and that the Russian military would counter in a way that would risk the outbreak of World War Three.
Turkey’s successful and punishing military raids in Idlib over the weekend, however, have made a mockery of these assertions and deflections, given Turkish armed drones wiped out a multitude of Syrian air defense systems and fighter jets easily and without cost or consequence within a mere 72-hour period.
Since the operation began on February 28, Turkey’s military assets have killed 2,212 Assad regime soldiers, and destroyed three Syrian air defense systems, eight helicopters, 103 tanks, and 72 guns/howitzers, according to Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar.
“We have no intention to confront Russia, but we want to stop the Assad regime’s massacre of civilians. Our target is only regime forces and elements attacking our troops,” he added.
Russia has shown no sign whatsoever that it has any desire to confront or even tangle with Turkey’s Air Force.
Syrian rebel groups have taken back more than a dozen towns they had surrendered since Assad and Putin stepped up their bombing campaign on Idlib in December. More significantly, Russia has shown no sign whatsoever that it has any desire to confront or even tangle with Turkey’s Air Force, which makes a further mockery of those, including Obama, that thought enforcing a no-fly zone over Idlib would lead to another world war.
As for the regime’s so-called “formidable defenses,” Turkish drones and jets have so overwhelmed the Syrian Army that it has resorted, out of sheer desperation, to burning car tires in strategic locations to blind Turkish satellite navigation systems and pilots. Car tires! It would be a joke were it not for the catastrophic loss of lives Assad’s war of choice has wrought on his people.
While one may question Turkey’s actual motives for intervening in Syria, what one cannot do is question its effectiveness in protecting three million mostly Sunni Syrians from being ethnically cleansed by Assad’s death squads and sectarian militias. For the first time in months, Assad-Russian warplanes are not bombing schools, hospitals, bakeries, markets, and mosques in Idlib.
“Turkish action now offers an opportunity – albeit late in the day – to try to correct mistakes of 2013 to the present, by getting a wider coalition behind an effort to disrupt [the] Assad/Russia military strategy, change calculations and open chance for coerced diplomatic negotiation,” tweeted former British diplomat Reza Afshar.
Afshar had resigned from his role as coordinator of UK policy on Syria after the British parliament “killed the momentum for action globally,” which he calls the “worst foreign policy decision of our generation.”
The cost of inaction, and by extension Obama’s pusillanimity, can be measured in upwards of one million dead Syrians, more than six million refugees alongside six million internally displaced people, further chemical weapons attacks, and the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and far-right political parties throughout the Western world—both of whom have leveraged Islamophobia for their respective gains.
That it has taken almost nine years for Assad’s victims to become the beneficiaries of meaningful and effective international intervention should shame us all, including a former US president.
* The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.