Bashar al-Assad is in trouble.
In late July, the Syrian president gave his first public speech in a year and acknowledged that his regime was depleted and had ceded territory to “the terrorists” – referring to anyone who has joined the insurgency.
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Assad’s weaknesses have created a renewed sense of urgency on the part of regional powers that have been secretly negotiating a political settlement to the conflict. The US, for its part, has had the most curious position on Assad.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, the Obama administration has publicly called for Assad to step aside, while doing everything in private to foreclose that possibility, and in effect, tacitly endorsing the Assad regime.
Assad and chemical weapons
Between August 2011, when President Obama first called on Assad to step down, and August 2014, when the US intervened to bomb the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Assad had used chemical weapons against thousands of civilians.
Obama threatened airstrikes to punish the regime, but implicit in this threat was the understanding that Assad would stay in power. Obama administration officials even admitted not wanting the Syrian opposition to prevail.
When Assad agreed to give up his chemical weapons under the auspices of John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the deal was sold as a diplomatic success.
The only problem was that Assad did not follow through. His intelligence agents intimidated the inspectors and limited what they could see, and Assad ended up keeping not only his stockpiles of chlorine, but also far more dangerous agents, like sarin and VX.
This year alone, Assad’s forces have been accused of multiple chlorine attacks against civilians.
Robert S Ford, who was the US ambassador to Syria before he resigned in protest, told me that the Obama administration “knew he [Assad] would use chemical weapons again and would not give everything up”.
If Obama had this foreknowledge, why did he not do more to keep lethal gases out of Assad’s hands?
The disturbing answer is that the US – a staunch proponent of non-proliferation, whose official policy was that Assad had to go – did not want a conflict with Assad. Obama was too risk-averse to enforce his own red line.
The Obama administration’s argument against intervening in Syria was that the situation was just too complicated for the US to help.
Obama said that the opposition was “disorganised, ill-equipped, ill-trained”. He stated that the moderate opposition was made up of “farmers or dentists”, among others, who all lacked fighting experience, and that it was “magical thinking” to believe that an earlier US involvement could have led to a peaceful transition.
All of these points contain partial truths, but they also contain self-serving myths.
The Syrian opposition was disorganised and ill-equipped because it was not externally supported the way al-Qaeda was.
Much of the moderate opposition consisted of civilians firing guns for the first time, but it also included thousands of Syrian army defectors and civilians who had once been conscripted.
Finally, if it was “magical thinking” to argue for proactive support for the moderates, it must have come as a surprise to the secretary of state, secretary of defence, the army chief of staff, and the director of the CIA of the day – all of whom advised Obama to arm the Syrian opposition before it was too late.
History will not be kind to those whose actions and inaction led to the Syrian people's ruin. And while this generation may be lost to the squalor of the refugee camp and the terror of daily bombardment, a future generation will remember what was done as their fathers and mothers met the most undignified of ends.
When Obama followed their advice two years later, only a limited number of moderate rebels had been trained in a programme widely derided as a failure.
By 2014, the Syrian vacuum had become filled with black flags.
Assad and ISIL
In true Arab nationalist form, Assad portrayed himself as the only man standing between the West and al-Qaeda.
This image – or mirage – won over many Western “realists”, despite actually turning reality on its head.
Assad was the reason Syrians of all backgrounds took to the street and why thousands of people flocked to Syria every year.
The many militant outfits that sprouted throughout the country all fought to get rid of Assad.
Even the Alawites eventually grew alienated because their children paid disproportionately with their lives to protect the Assad family.
Obama’s refusal to confront Assad and support the opposition allowed the Syrian president to set in place a motion of events that gave rise to ISIL.
Assad released Islamist militants from prison to flood the opposition with battle-hardened religious fanatics.
His sectarian militia, the shabiha, openly cleansed Sunnis from their villages, driving them into the arms of jihadist groups for protection.
The conditions that gave rise to ISIL’s terrorist state were, therefore, supplied by Assad’s military strategy and Obama’s lack of one.
Obama’s foreign policy has been shaped by his predecessor’s invasion of Iraq, and so the choice he offered to the public was do nothing in Syria or risk “another Iraq”.
But his disinterest exacerbated what may come to be known as “another Syria”, with over 250,000 dead, four million refugees, and over half the population displaced.
War haemorrhages not only bodies, but memories. It turns the remembered past into a collage of grey rubble between vast chasms of emptiness.
The Syrian uprising was ignited by children who spray painted anti-Assad slogans on their school’s wall.
They were arrested and tortured the next day. Their fellow citizens, who had lost their innocence long ago, took to the streets to demand their dignity.
They chanted, “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one”. They threw flowers on Ambassador Ford’s car when he went to their rally. They thought the Americans were with them. But the US was nowhere to be found.
History will not be kind to those whose actions and inaction led to the Syrian people’s ruin. And while this generation may be lost to the squalor of the refugee camp and terror of daily bombardment, a future generation will remember what was done as their fathers and mothers met the most undignified of ends.
Omer Aziz is a writer, J.D. candidate at Yale Law School, and a Fellow at the Yale Information Society Project. He worked most recently for the UN Special Envoy for Syria.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.