Who Really Betrayed the Syrians?

The Islamic State executed a series of devastating attacks in Paris last Friday night. President Obama responded angrily by delivering some effective precision-guided strikes. At the Islamic terrorist organization that murdered 129 and wounded hundreds of others in Paris? Of course not; he calmly described this atrocity as a mere “setback” in his successful efforts to contain IS and vowed to bring those guys “to justice.” Instead, he directed his fusillade at Republicans, his favorite kinetic target.

At a time when French president Francois Hollande has been fixated on retaliating in Syria against Islamic State and arresting its followers in France and Belgium to prevent more terrorist attacks President Obama directed his attention, while traveling abroad no less, on partisan attacks. He blasted many Republicans – who, having seen that at least one of the Paris attackers apparently entered France as a Syrian refugee, are rightly wary of letting in thousands of Syrians into our country who can’t realistically be vetted properly and could contain terrorists – of being weak, betraying American values, and emboldening the Islamic State. He accused Republicans of being “scared of widows and orphans,” and portrayed declarations by Republican presidential candidates (viz. Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Jeb Bush) that we should only allow in Christians as “offensive and contrary to American values” and a “potent recruitment tool” for the Islamic State.

This issue of whether to accept Syrian refugees is legitimate and requires proper, constructive debate. Some Republicans, such as commentator Charles Krauthammer, have suggested that perhaps only Syrian men be banned but women and children let in. Further, Elliott Abrams wrote here that American law dictates special treatment for persecuted religious minorities, which Christians are in Syria. Indeed, some Democrats agree with Republicans espousing these views, and some prominent Republicans disagree.

Beyond, the impropriety of Obama’s attacks, they are especially galling, or chutzpadik – to borrow a word from a religious minority that two decades ago fled Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria thanks to the special help of the United States – it is Obama’s Syria policy that has been weak, betrayed American values and emboldened the Islamic State.

President Obama has stood by and done virtually nothing while the Assad regime has slaughtered more than 250,000 Syrians and forced millions, more than half the country, from their homes. Standing by as such staggering carnage continues – with no interest even of establishing a no-fly safe zone – betrays American humanistic values fundamentally and dwarfs any concern over 10,000 refugees. Indeed, there would be far less a Syrian refugee crisis if the United States had set up such a zone. And the embodiment of weakness was Obama drawing a “red line” against use of chemical weapons in Syria and then refusing to enforce it. Only the catastrophic Iran deal, which all but ensures the emergence of a nuclear Iran, with international blessing no less, in fifteen years, if not sooner, marks a worse case of Obama’s weakness, indeed the apex of it and the nadir of American credibility.

Further, Obama has done a great deal to facilitate IS recruitment. Not only has he waged a feeble, half-hearted battle (“war” would be too strong a word) against the Islamic States but he has de facto supported the Assad regime by choosing not to target its assets or even declare a no-fly zone to prevent it from dropping barrel bombs on civilians. He has denied real military support to moderate Syrian elements, driving opponents of the Assad regime into the arms of the only effective fighting force on the ground (outside the Kurdish areas): radical Islamist jihadi groups like IS. And he has ensured the further continuation of the sectarian death struggle between Sunni and Shia in Syria and Iraq by emboldening and enriching, via this summer’s nuclear deal, Iran. The regime in Tehran, after all, represents the Shia version of the Islamic State, except it has, and will continue to expand, a robust nuclear program that poses an existential threat to our traditional Israeli and Arab allies. It funnels arms, weapons, training, and even battlefield support not just to Assad but also Hezbollah and the Shiite militias running rampant in Iraq and Syria. By cutting the nuclear deal and aligning with Iran, staying cozy with the Shia government in Baghdad, and distancing itself from America’s traditional Sunni Arab allies, Obama has sent a signal to Sunnis in Iraq and Syria that we won’t protect them, leading many to feel like their only choice is to embrace the Islamic State.

Obama’s rhetoric post-Paris suggests little if any change in U.S. policy. He ruled out materially ratcheting up attacks against the Islamic State while Secretary Kerry appears intent on continued realignment toward Iran and perhaps Russia. This means more will continue to get killed in Syria and others elsewhere will be victimized by radical Shia and Sunni terror, marking a betrayal of our values and fundamental security and strategic interests.

So, it is Obama’s destructive Syria (and Iran) policy that is so dangerous, not any Democratic or Republican rhetoric over Syrian refugees. The rhetoric and debate needs to refocus on changing that policy.

Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard on November 19, 2015.