It was a sunny morning on Saturday 31 August 2013 – Labor Day weekend in the US – when Barack Obama strolled into the Rose Garden of the White House. The last thing most Americans were thinking about was war in a far-off Middle Eastern country.
But Obama faced a dilemma. The decision he was about to announce would come to be seen as a defining moment for his presidency. It also marked a tipping point for the international strategic balance of power. It was a moment that would transform the civil war in Syria into the epic failure of our age.
It was a moment full of dire portents. Obama’s disregard for his own “red line” was interpreted in Moscow, Tehran, Damascus and other Arab capitals as confirming a fundamental shift – evidence that a chastened, post-Iraq America was retreating from its global policeman role. Obama’s hesitation gave Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader, an opening. It fitted his core agenda: to rebuild Moscow’s influence in the Middle East and make Russia great again by restoring Soviet-era global reach.
It is far from clear what the impact of a US-led military intervention in 2013 would have been. It could have exacerbated the plight of Syria’s civilians without toppling the regime or curtailing the war. It could have escalated uncontrollably – although it is difficult to see how things could be worse than they are now.
But by deciding to hand off responsibility, Obama sent another damaging message: that the US, the world’s only superpower, and key allies such as Britain, were not prepared to fight for a free, democratic Syria, no more than they would fight for democracy in support of other Arab Spring revolts. They tried it in Libya in 2011 and quickly recoiled.
Everything but tech support.