French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius did not disguise his pessimism, and his chagrin, over the fading fortunes of Syria’s rebel forces when I asked him recently about the Geneva conference that the Obama administration still holds out as the one good chance for a solution to Syria’s bloody sectarian war.
Fabius was far too diplomatic to attribute the opposition’s abrupt battlefield decline directly to Washington’s hesitant, on-again, off-again support for arming the coalition of aggrieved Syrians, opposition politicians and murderous jihadists fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad.
But in the course of an hour-long conversation, Fabius did voice broad concerns about an absence of strong leadership in the West. And other figures in President François Hollande’s Socialist government expressed strong fears that a loss of U.S. credibility in Syria will encourage Iran to intensify its quest for nuclear weapons.
This underlying concern over nuclear proliferation and Iran — Assad’s battlefield ally — helps explain French efforts to build stronger outside support for the Syrian opposition, including by pressing Washington if necessary. It was only after Fabius went public with indications that Syria had used chemical weapons that the United States pledged to supply unspecified arms to the opposition.
“Public opinion is decisive in this kind of struggle,” Fabius said. “The proof we have that chemical weapons have been used shows that this is not just a local or regional conflict that can be left alone.”
How the world turns. Only a few years ago, another French foreign minister complained that the United States had become a “hyperpower” too ready to boss its allies around. French leaders then pined for a “multi-polar world.”
“It is said that we lived in a bipolar world for decades, and then people talked about a unipolar or a multi-polar world,” Fabius remarked. “It is actually a zero-polar world we have today. At the end of conferences and meetings, no one is capable of saying, ‘This is what must now be done.’ ”
France is reliably reported to have been urging the Obama administration to rush antitank and antiaircraft weapons to the Syrian rebels to prevent a military collapse.
But officials I spoke to say that they see no sign that an effective supply chain is being established. And they recall that State Department and Pentagon officials assured London and Paris privately last October that the rebels would get U.S. arms, only to have those assurances abruptly pulled back by President Obama. Help at that time might have set the stage for a Geneva conference that now appears to have been overtaken, and perhaps destroyed, by events.
The Syrian crisis is a complicated and treacherous struggle that Washington is ill-prepared to resolve, just as Obama suggests. But the arguments heard here seem to make two strong points:
First, the administration has failed to develop a regional strategy that takes into account the effect of an Assad-Hezbollah-Iran conquest of the opposition. Especially troubling are the suspicions of French intelligence sources that Iranian military “advisers” may be responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, as a kind of laboratory experiment.
Second, Obama’s effort to lead far from behind in this crisis has caused unnecessary and damaging tensions with key European and Arab allies. The inconsistencies on intentions, and the decision to go over the heads of those allies in agreeing to the Geneva conference with Russia without serious consultations, are marks of poor alliance management.
I fear that Obama is falling into the legacy trap that every lame-duck president confronts, and doing so much too early in his second term. Faced with questions or criticism, the president and his favorite phrase-maker, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, repeat ad infinitum that Obama has extracted the United States from two Middle East wars and doesn’t intend to get involved in a third.
That fits public opinion and, as I say, my own sense of the dangers of the Syrian cauldron. But to seem to be all about protecting a legacy rather than dealing with the dilemmas of current problems invites a sense of a “zero-polarworld” in which allies doubt U.S. leadership. This is not a president who should be satisfied with history judging him to have been a leader who looked at the Syrian bloodbath and said: “Too hard.”