PRESIDENT OBAMA acknowledged the obvious this week: that to resolve the massive humanitarian emergency afflicting the Middle East and Europe, “we ultimately have to deal with the source of the problem, which is the ongoing crisis in Syria.” His administration then offered a remarkable illustration of why that hasn’t happened. A $500 million program launched last year to train moderate Syrian rebel forces, officials conceded, had been an abject failure. But, the White House contended, the president was not at fault because he had never believed in the strategy, anyway.
There’s sad truth in that. At the root of what surely will be seen as the greatest failure of his presidency is Mr. Obama’s refusal to commit to a coherent plan for ending President Bashar al-Assad’s murderous assault on his own people. But this is not, as spokesman Josh Earnest contended, “something our critics will have to answer for.” Had Mr. Obama accepted the recommendation of his national security team in 2012 to arm and train Syrian opposition forces, or the many proposals to create safe zones where civilians could be protected from the regime’s barbaric barrel bomb attacks, much of the subsequent carnage, not to mention the flood of refugees now pouring into Europe, could have been prevented.
As it is, every consequence that Mr. Obama warned might come from U.S. intervention — including the rise of Islamic jihadists who now control much of Syria’s territory — has occurred in the absence of U.S. action. And the dangers are growing. Into the vacuum of American leadership has stepped Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has dispatched troops and equipment to Syria in an effort to force the world to accept his solution to the war, which is the creation of a new coalition to fight the Islamic State that includes the Assad government.
Mr. Putin’s scheme is another recipe for disaster. The Assad dictatorship has been the prime source of the humanitarian crisis, and its continued existence is what drives recruitment for extremist Sunni forces such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. To bolster the regime will swell the ranks of the extremists and intensify the war. The only winner will be Mr. Putin, who aims to restore Russia as a power in the Middle East at the expense of the United States.
The administration nevertheless is prevaricating in its response. On Saturday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said “we ought to be able to find the way forward” with Russia on a political settlement and added that Mr. Assad need not step down on “day one or month one or whatever.”
By now Mr. Kerry should know better than to suppose that Mr. Putin can be induced to support an acceptable political outcome in Damascus, or that Russia will contribute constructively to the fight against the Islamic State. The United States should respond to Russia’s Syria deployment not by accommodating it, but by countering it. The way to do so is to proceed with the creation of protected zones along Syria’s borders, defended by rebel forces and U.S. airpower. Refugees could gather in those areas, along with moderate anti-Assad forces.
The “source of the problem” in Syria is an unrelenting war waged by a brutal regime. But it is also the failure of the United States to back up its objectives with consequential action. That is something that only Mr. Obama can answer for — and that he still has time to repair.