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October 9, 2015 4:37 am

Obama’s Record on Syria and Iran Is Truly Horrific

avatar by Jonathan Greenberg

President Barack Obama announcing the Iran nuclear deal, with Vice President Joe Biden. Photo: Screenshot.

President Barack Obama announcing the Iran nuclear deal, with Vice President Joe Biden. Photo: Screenshot.

In his speech last week to the United Nations, President Obama declared that, “the United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict” in Syria. Yet, in order to get his disastrous nuclear deal with Iran, it now appears that President Obama was willing to allow Iran’s ally, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, to go on killing his own people rather than run the risk of angering our Iranian interlocutors.

The background is complex but important:

In the third presidential debate of 2012 between the president and Mitt Romney, moderator Bob Schieffer, citing press reports of ongoing talks with Iran, had the following exchange with the president:

Mr. Schieffer:  As you know, there are reports that Iran and the United States, as part of an international group, have agreed in principle to talks about Iran’s nuclear program. What is the deal – if there are such talks – what is the deal that you would accept? Mr. President?

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Pres. Obama: Well, first of all, those were reports in the newspaper. They are not true. But our goal is to get Iran to recognize it needs to give up its nuclear program and abide by the U.N. resolutions that have been in place, because they have the opportunity to re-enter the community of nations, and we would welcome that.  There are people in Iran who have the same aspirations as people all around the world, for a better life. And we hope that their leadership takes the right decision. But the deal we’ll accept is, they end their nuclear program.  It’s very straightforward.

We already know that the B side of the president’s answer – “the deal we’ll accept is they end their nuclear program” – was something less than “straightforward.” But it now turns out that the president’s blanket denial of ongoing talks may also have been false.

According to a recent report from the Middle East Media Research Institute, senior Iranian officials have said publicly that talks with the United States began in 2011, while Hillary Clinton was still secretary of state and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still president of Iran. If true, it would mean that everything the U.S. has done (or, more to the point, failed to do) in Syria must be seen through the lens of our negotiations with Iran and the importance the president today places on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Meanwhile, in Syria, the still-ongoing civil war broke out in spring of 2011 in the broader regional context of the so-called Arab Spring. It wasn’t really a full-blown military conflict until summer of that year, when a number of senior Syrian military officers defected to form the Free Syrian Army. Iran, by that point, was already heavily involved in the funding and arming of Assad. Tehran would commit combat troops later. In August of 2011, President Obama called on Assad to step down. His statement – laughably naïve at the time – is, in hindsight, a stinging indictment of the Obama administration’s fecklessness:

“We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

In October of 2011, two months after the president put his credibility on the line to call for Assad’s departure, the Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Assad. (This happened again in February and July of 2012 before Security Council member states got the hint and stopped trying.) The war raged on. Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra formed in January of 2012. The U.S. embassy in Damascus closed a month later, by which time the U.N. estimated that 7,500 civilians had died. This brings us to February of 2012 — before hundreds of thousands were dead and millions displaced, before neighboring countries and Europe were inundated with refugees, and before militant Islamists had commandeered the fight against Assad and turned it into a world-wide magnet for jihadists.

It was at this point that, according to a recent report, Russia approached the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council with a three-point peace plan that would have included Assad ceding power.  According to former Finnish president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari, the Russian proposal was ignored by the western powers because they were convinced that Assad was close to losing power anyway.

To summarize: the United States reportedly was engaged in secret talks with Iran as early as 2011, the same year the Syrian civil war began. If true, these talks were deemed sufficiently important that the president lied about them in the course of his reelection campaign.  In early 2012, with 7,500 Syrians already dead and the situation deteriorating, Russia – the main international sticking point to resolving the conflict – proposed a settlement. The United States, while still engaged in talks with Assad’s greatest regional benefactors, failed to take seriously the proposal. It is entirely reasonable, given the extremely close relationship between Assad and Iran, that the United States calculated that it had to choose between a Syrian peace proposal and continued talks with Iran. Obviously, we chose Iran.

And that staggering miscalculation has yielded the following results: hundreds of thousands of dead civilians, millions of displaced persons, chemical weapons being used willy-nilly by both sides of the conflict, a full-blown refugee emergency and a Russian military build-up in Syrian territory.

But, hey, at least we got a nuclear deal with Iran that most Americans rightly view as a total capitulation on our part, leaving Iran stronger and more confident and the post-World War II nuclear non-proliferation regime in tatters.

With his nuclear deal safely in hand and Russian fighters in the air, President Obama claims he is ready to work with Russia and Iran to resolve the Syrian civil war. History may yet wonder how many lives could have been saved had he been ready in 2012.

Jonathan Greenberg is an ordained reform rabbi and the senior vice president of the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought. An expert in Middle East policy and former staffer at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, you can follow him @JGreenbergSez.

This article was originally published by The Hill. 

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