In early June, I traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan and to Istanbul. I had meant to return to southern Turkey, and to the Syrian refugee camps on the outskirts of Antakya.
My wife and I had befriended a family from the town of Jisr al-Shughur, a stone’s throw from the Turkish border. We had been helpful to them in small ways, and they had given more in the bargain: they had delivered us an education about their homeland and its calamity. It was a large family; they had crossed the border in June of 2011.
They came to Turkey bearing their grief: two of their sons, young men in their thirties, had been killed, a third was missing. In their hometown on the banks of the Orontes, they had been people of property and standing. Abu Mohamed, a soft-spoken man in his mid-sixties, had owned a thriving fishery, his house was spacious, with room enough for four sons and five daughters.
All that had been shattered on June 4, 2011. The family is precise about the date. It was on that day when the regime’s forces met the protesters of Jisr al-Shughur with fire, and the two sons were killed, and the third picked up by the security forces never to be heard from again. On their mother’s cell phone there are pictures of all three men—pictures of them in the fullness of life, and pictures of the two fallen sons after their death. She wanted the dead remembered, she said, she owed it to them.
We had met shortly after they had crossed over to Turkey. The big house and the fishery had been traded for two tents. You could see that they had known prosperity: there were touches of small elegance, embroideries, a chest they had brought with them that spoke of better times. But more telling was the embarrassment they felt about their surroundings, the shame that they could not treat their guests to the hospitality that was routine in their world.
I was writing a book about Syria, and they had taken me in. I vowed to return, and I did. There was something primeval about the camp: rows of white tents with the crescent of Turkish relief atop, at the edge of a green field. Man had his start this way, but in this camp people had been forcibly returned to the beginning of things.
There was Rasha, the most accomplished of the daughters, a computer wizard who taught that subject back in her hometown, her proud, natural air of confidence undiminished by these surroundings. This, too, shall pass, they told me, as they reassured themselves. They extracted a vow I would come and stay with them in the aftermath of the fall of the regime. We would celebrate together the punishment of the despot, and we would see for ourselves where they truly belong—the house and the fishery.
In May of 2012, I returned with a television crew, I accompanied the CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and his team. By then Rasha had picked up some of my trail—some television interviews on YouTube, articles in Arabic dailies. She knew I was a defender of their cause.
One matter was left out of our dealings. They were rural people, Sunni conservatives, and I had grown up in a Shia family in Beirut. Rasha had an inkling of that, but discretion prevailed. I was never asked about my background. Abu Mohamed was secure in the knowledge that I was a Sunni like himself. No self-respecting Shia would support the cause of a principally Sunni rebellion against an Alawi oppressor, he must have thought.
This was confirmed to me when he railed against the ways of the Shia—a strange breed, he said, who themselves killed Imam Hussein, in the searing battle of Kerbala, in 680, and then set out year after year to mourn his death. I neither corrected him, nor quibbled. I had been stripped of religious belief, and I was not about to quarrel with a man who had his own calamity. He was referred to in the camp, and among refugees in neighboring camps as Abu al-Shaheedayn, the father of two martyrs.
It was searing in Kerbala, in southern Iraq, Imam Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson cut off from the waters of the Euphrates, killed with seventy of his companions, his head severed to be taken to the ruler in Damascus, his body trampled by the horses. But this time, this place, offered its own spectacle of grief and martyrdom.
Abu Mohamed had taken to the television camera. This surprised me for he had been resolute in his assertion that his missing son, Mohamed, the oldest of the boys, would return and he did not want to risk the regime’s wrath. But he sat there, holding his infant grandson—a son of the missing Mohamed, named for a murdered uncle—to the camera.
“Mr. Anderson,” he said, “We were peaceful people in our town, we were farmers, we didn’t have a single rifle around. We wanted our rights, our sons just simply went out to protest against a regime that took away our liberty and preyed on us.”
He recalled for his guest the beauty of Syria, a land of apricots and oranges and olives. “Refugees from all sorts of troubled lands were welcomed in Syria, now we have become refugees ourselves. I had nine children, not a single one had access to government employment, not even the humble job of a street sweeper. You should come and see us in our bliss as you saw us in our misery here.”
He was inconsolable—he told of a brother of his still in Jisr al-Shughur asking for his permission to take over his fishery while he was away. He had turned down the request: “Why should other people, even a brother, enjoy what I had made with my sweat and labor while I suffer here in this desolate camp?”
Night fell and it was painfully cold—in May. The television lights provided some badly needed warmth as we stood there in the darkness for a live broadcast to New York. I had been told of the unforgiving winters here, and of heavy snowfall that nearly brought down the tents months earlier. Syria and its lights were achingly close.
Our presence provided the people in these tents with false solace. They were sure that if powers beyond knew of them, that if they can convince mighty outsiders—all the more so the mighty Americans—that they are simple people, innocent of the bigotry of Al Qaeda and the fury of the jihadists, the cavalry would come to the rescue. One did not have the heart to tell them that it was their lot that they rose in rebellion on the watch of Barack Obama, that their cause was lumped together with a war nearby in Iraq that went badly for the United States, that the promises made to them were meant to run out the clock on them. One could not tell them that the world can take in stride all kinds of suffering and still avert its gaze.
It was cruel to try to tell them that the hectic travel of Hillary Clinton, the endless diplomatic meetings in the chancelleries, would leave them stranded in these tents. But then again, they knew the dreaded truth. It was Abu Mohamed who permitted himself the most forbidding of thoughts: he thought of the Palestinians and dreaded their example, that he would be condemned to their fate, that the house and the fishery on the banks of the Orontes would become memories.
There was a time when Hillary Clinton, on her way to Istanbul for yet another conference on Syria, stopped off in South Africa, and could be seen cutting a rug on the dance floor with her hosts. Aleppo was then being subjected to a brutal assault, an ancient and proud and practical city being reduced to rubble. The indifference, and the lack of decorum displayed by America’s chief diplomat were a shock to the refugees.
A simple man in the camps, his children trailing behind him (the children are everywhere, lives and futures wasting away, Syria had an astoundingly high birth rate) stopped by to chat, and said to me: “No one will come to our rescue, it is all talk and pretense, we suffer alone.”
There was rebuke in the way he said what he said, I was a convenient target for his wrath. In a tent in an adjacent row, a young, gifted artist, who painted in water colors fragments of the life of her town—here a tranquil nature drawing, a prison, portraits of young men who had been felled by the regime—refused to admit me and the television crew into her tent.
People had come and gone, relief workers, reporters, help was promised, but nothing came of it. Some of her paintings had been turned over to outsiders to be sold in foreign lands, but no one sent money in return for what had been given. She had wearied, she told a younger brother, of being a curiosity, the refugee artist toiling away at scenes from her lost town.
Early on in Syria’s ordeal, there was the usual speculation about the kind of event, the type and scale of massacre, that would trigger American intervention. Call it a search for a Syrian Srebrenica, for Srebrenica had forced a reluctant Bill Clinton into the Bosnian slaughter.
There were political speculations that Barack Obama would step in once his bid for re-election was behind him. It was reasonable to think that the Syrian rebels might know the luck of the Libyans, that a NATO intervention would topple the Assad dictatorship. But the cavalry never turned up, and Syria never rose to the level of being a presidential concern.
It came to light that the four highest national security officials in Obama’s first term—the Secretary of State, Defense, CIA Director, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—urged arming the Syrian rebellion but were overridden by the president. And then came a singular moment of shame, in August 2012, when President Obama drew a red line on the use of chemical weapons. His “calculus” would change, Mr. Obama asserted, if these weapons were used or moved around. It was an odd, lawyerly distinction, air power and Scud missiles had taken much of Syria apart; the regime needed no chemical weapons.
But Bashar al-Assad brazenly crossed Mr. Obama’s red line, and American officials scrambled to find a cover for American retreat. We couldn’t be sure, it was said, whether it was the regime or the opposition that had resorted to the use of chemical weapons. The custodians of American power played for time, secure in the belief that this embarrassment, too, shall blow over. Ours being a liberal power in the world, we needed absolution, and the bearded fighters provided it: the jihadists had made their way to Syria, fighters from the Sudan and Marseilles, from Belgium and Libya. They had carved out emirates of their own, they terrorized the Syrians who fell under their power, but they had the moral case on their side that they had come to the rescue. Thus American power was given a reprieve by the very outcome that its abdication had wrought.
Afghanistan in the Levant, Syria is now called, a devil’s playground on the shores of the Mediterranean. In the nature of a world power keen to show that it still matters, and still cares, the Obama administration has fallen back on a convenient method of absolution—concern for Syria’s neighbors, and for the “spillover” of the Syrian war. Our soldiers and diplomats are full of concern for the stability of Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and for the peace of the Syrian-Israeli border. It is only Syria we disregard.
Our skin has grown thick in the Obama years. We live in the universe this president has created, caught in the controversies he stirs up day after day, caught between his devotees keen to overlook the transgressions and scandals of his reign, and critics and rivals who have not been able to find a way that this presidency could be reined in.
It was the better part of wisdom, and of mercy, for me to skip a return to the camps. By now, these abandoned people have been schooled in the ways of moral and political evasion. They needed no strangers intruding on them to explain why the foreign cavalry never turned up.
On August 22, Israeli intelligence confirmed what Washington knew but had refused to acknowledge: the use of poison gas in a large-scale attack in the Ghouta, east of Damascus. “According to our intelligence assessment there was use of chemical weapons, and this of course was not for the first time,” said Yuval Steinitz, the minister of strategic and intelligence affairs. The YouTube videos provided their own truth: row after row of corpses, in the white shrouds of death, so many of them children, without visible injury.
The United Nations Security Council said that there must be “clarity on what happened,” and that the situation has to be “followed carefully.” It was quiet in Washington—it had been a summer busy with dispatches on the golf game of President Obama, and on the new first puppy, Sunny, the Portuguese water dog, the newest addition to the White House. Bashar al-Assad had taken the full measure of powers beyond. These new attacks—no one could be sure of the exact numbers of victims, but it was certainly in the hundreds—had taken place as United Nations inspectors were present in Syria to investigate prior incidents where chemical weapons had been used. The hotel where the inspectors were staying was a mere 15 minutes away from the site of the attacks. There is a method to Bashar’s criminality. No clearer message could be sent to his population about his belief that he could kill with abandon.
A day earlier, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in his eagerness to exonerate the president, crossed from military advice to political judgment. In a letter to Congress, he observed that the Pentagon could tip the balance in the Syrian war, but that the opponents of the regime were not ready to fill the power vacuum. “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.” This kind of “advice” would have doomed the cause of Kuwait in 1991, Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1999, the Afghans in 2001, the Iraqis in 2003, and yes, the Libyans in 2011.
A doctrine of American passivity has taken hold on the watch of Barack Obama. George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush were no reckless warriors. They had accepted the burden of American power and responsibility. (Indeed, Bill Clinton, in his memoirs, had come to recognize the abdication of his policy over the horrors of Rwanda.) In the Obamian era, there shall be no such expressions of remorse. There is only the vanity of the standard-bearer of American power. Mr. Obama needn’t do virtuous things; he himself is virtuous. In an inversion of the Nixonian formula, if the president doesn’t do it, it can’t be morally pressing, or strategically justified. We are in an era where the president’s sense of certitude—and the president’s oratory—acquit our policies. Wait for the presidential memoirs: they will reiterate how our “progressive” leader spared us the entanglement in the ordeal of distant places and people.
Fouad Ajami is the Herbert and Jane Dwight Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the cochair of the Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order. From 1980 to 2011 he was director of Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Arab Predicament, Beirut: City of Regrets, The Dream Palace of the Arabs, and The Foreigner's Gift. His most recent publication is The Syrian Rebellion (Hoover Institution Press, 2012). His writings also include some four hundred essays on Arab and Islamic politics, US foreign policy, and contemporary international history. Ajami has received numerous awards, including the Benjamin Franklin Award for public service (2011), the Eric Breindel Award for Excellence in Opinion Journalism (2011), the Bradley Prize (2006), the National Humanities Medal (2006), and the MacArthur Fellows Award (1982). His research has charted the road to 9/11, the Iraq war, and the US presence in the Arab-Islamic world.