Obama’s Choices: Syria and Ukraine

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President Barack Obama has taken plenty of flak for his recent foreign-policy decisions.

Conservatives have likened him to President Jimmy Carter, who critics tarred as a foreign-policy weakling — and worse. “He makes Carter look like Attila the Hun,” recently groused Andrew Kuchins, director of the Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

WATCH: Tonight, FRONTLINE goes inside these two conflicts — one that we’ve been covering almost since it began, and the other that has only begun to unravel. In The Battle for Ukraine, FRONTLINE explores the motivations on both sides of the crisis. And in Syria: Arming the Rebels, we investigate the U.S. efforts to arm and train some opposition fighters.

Liberals have also taken Obama to task for not doing enough to end humanitarian crises like Syria. “It has been one of the more stunning and inexplicable displays of presidential incompetence that I’ve ever witnessed,” Time’s Joe Klein railed in deploring Obama’s response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Until recently, Obama has brushed off such attacks. His advisers argue that critics simply don’t understand the president’s full foreign-policy strategy.

Tomorrow, Obama plans to lay out that plan in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “It’s a case for interventionism but not overreach,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, told The New York Times. “We are leading, we are the only country that leads, but that leadership has to be in service of an international system.”

As part of his speech, Obama is likely to elaborate on his response to two recent crises for which he’s drawn criticism: the civil war in Syria and the crisis in Ukraine. They’re worlds apart, but both have ignited a debate about the U.S. response. In Syria, has Obama done too little, too late? And has the U.S. offered a strong enough answer to Russian aggression in Ukraine? Can, or should, the U.S. intervene more effectively?

SYRIA

Early on in the conflict, Obama and several allies called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down in a series of carefully choreographed statements. The U.S. also imposed sanctions on the increasingly isolated regime, and called for its allies to do the same.

But Assad refused to cede power, and only stepped up attacks on the rebel forces and civilians. The war broadened, drawing in regional players like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, all of which had their own objectives in Syria. The humanitarian crisis deepened. But the U.S. refrained from overt action.

“When I was in the government we were constantly searching for options,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a former State Department adviser now at the Brookings Institute. “None [of the options] that were presented to him looked very good, or better than what was already happening.”

Last year, the U.S. came close to threatening military intervention in Syria, when Obama said that Assad had crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons against civilians. For a moment, the Syrian government, at least, appeared to believe the U.S. might be considering military intervention.

Instead, the Obama administration worked out an agreement, brokered with the help of Russia, to ensure Syria handed over its chemical weapons to the international community. As of April, nearly 90 percent of Syria’s chemical weapons store had been exported, with a final deadline of June 30 this year.

The Obama administration has become the largest provider of bilateral humanitarian assistance to Syria, having spent $1.7 billion as of April 2014. The government also provides nonlethal assistance, like communications tools, to certain opposition groups.

Covertly, the government also provides some weapons and training to select rebel groups. In his Wednesday speech at West Point, Obama is expected to announce the U.S. military to begin a supplemental training program for moderate rebel groups, The Wall Street Journal reported today, out of concern that militant groups in Syria could become strong enough to pose a threat to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the fight drones on, with the rebels battling Syrian government forces and foreign fighters come to wage jihad in the chaos. And the Syrian government may have found a way around the chemical weapons ban: A recent report by Human Rights Watch found evidence that “strongly suggests” that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrels full of chlorine gas on three towns in mid-April. Chlorine isn’t on the list of banned substances under the Chemical Weapons Treaty, but the nonprofit watchdog group said that using an industrial chemical as a weapon is prohibited by the international treaty, which Syria joined in October 2013.

Obama’s Options

For the U.S., “the choice itself is pretty stark,” Fredric Hof, a former Obama adviser on Syria and now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told FRONTLINE. “Either go along with the situation that’s evolving right now or try to do something about it. And if the United States approaches this choice from the point of view of merely checking a box — giving people enough aid to stay alive but not prevail — it’s really tantamount to accepting the first part of the choice, to accepting the division of Syria between two sets of terrorists.”

That first choice — letting Syria unravel without U.S. intervention — may be the least worst option, Shapiro said. “It’s not at all clear that doubling down with all the power the U.S. government could muster would end the Syrian civil war,” he said. “We certainly could alter it, but could we improve the situation? I don’t know that that’s obvious.” He added that the U.S. had recently tried doubling down for 10 years in a neighboring country — Iraq.

Even Obama’s critics admit there are no clear solutions in Syria. Military intervention seems out of the question. After two exhausting wars, the American public is deeply disinterested in another overseas conflict. A poll shortly after images surfaced of children killed in a chemical weapons strike by the regime showed that only 25 percent even supported airstrikes in response. And 65 percent opposed sending U.S. troops.

Acting with international support is also a challenge, since Russia and China regularly block resolutions on Syria at the U.N.

Kuchins, the CSIS analyst, maintains that Obama’s decision to call for Assad to step down makes it more difficult to negotiate a diplomatic resolution. “If you want Assad to go, you have to get your hands dirty and make that happen,” he said. “And if you don’t, you have to do a diplomatic solution with Assad there. And what we got was the worst of both worlds.”

UKRAINE

In many ways, the situation in Ukraine is even more delicate because it brings the U.S. into a direct confrontation with the world’s other major superpower.

Obama’s initial statement in February, as what appeared to be Russian troops gathered in Crimea, warned that “any violation” of Ukrainian sovereignty would represent a “profound interference” in the country and a “clear violation of international law.”

“The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine,” he said. In the days that followed, the U.S. unfurled a list of sanctions against Russian assets and key players in Moscow.

Since annexing Crimea, Russia has refrained from moving in on other Russian-leaning regions in Ukraine, despite a referendum in two eastern areas, Donetsk and Luhansk, which declared their independence.

The Russian government also appeared to stay out of Sunday’s presidential election, in which voters overwhelmingly chose Petro Poroshenko, a wealthy Ukrainian magnate. The vote was generally declared free and fair. But in the east, the situation remains tense.

Pro-Russian separatists disrupted the vote in the eastern sectors of the country, and by Tuesday the BBC was reporting that more violence had erupted as the Ukrainian military recaptured the Donetsk airport. At least 30 pro-Russian separatists have been reported killed.

On Monday, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, had said his country was “open to dialogue” with the new president, Poroshenko, but that Ukrainian military action against the separatists would be a “colossal mistake.”

Poroshenko, for his part, has agreed to enter into talks with the separatists, but said he wouldn’t tolerate armed militias. “Their goal is to turn [eastern Ukraine] into Somalia. I will not let anyone do this to our state and I hope that Russia will support my approach,” he said.

Obama’s Options

Not even Obama’s harshest critics have suggested that military intervention should be considered in Ukraine. Arming the Ukrainian military — which is vastly outnumbered in man- and firepower by Russian forces — has been dismissed as a futile effort that risked putting the U.S. in the position of fighting a proxy war with Russia.

Still, Kuchins and other critics wanted to see Obama take a harsher line on Ukraine in the beginning. “The goal had to be to change the calculation in Putin’s mind that there really was a risk of serious consequences, and I just felt that was totally absent,” he said. “I don’t think that the administration really understood or comprehended the gravity of the situation.”

But Shapiro said the administration was concerned about making threats on which it couldn’t deliver. “The Russians are very likely to test our bluff,” he said. “It would have represented a real mistake. What the president showed was an escalatory ladder that the Russians might actually believe we could climb. And we still might.”

Still on the “ladder”: possible sanctions on key sectors of the Russian economy, including energy and banking.

Kuchins said he doesn’t think sanctions will be effective, and says the U.S. should focus more on trying to build up the Ukrainian economy, which is deeply dependent on Russian energy. “The policy should be much more focused on how we help Ukraine,” he said. “Russia is punishing itself, and if our only policy tool really is financial sanctions, economic sanctions … it would not be effective in altering the calculation in Putin’s mind.”

He added: “If Ukraine is able to stand up to this, that’s how Putin loses.”

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