So numerous were the omissions, distortions, and flights of extraordinary fancy in President Barack Obama’s Jan. 12 State of the Union address that you’d be hard-pressed to pick the most egregious passage. For what it’s worth, then, I offer my personal selection.
“On issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight,” Obama said. “That’s our approach to conflicts like Syria, where we’re partnering with local forces and leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace.”
I was dumbfounded by the notion that Syria is even in a position to “pursue a lasting peace.” With the civil war entering its fifth year, Syria no longer exists as a unified country. That half of the country’s population of 11 million has either been killed or forced to flee is a gruesome testament to that fact, as well as the unmitigated failure of our policy.
The Iranian and Russian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad didn’t merit a mention in Obama’s remarks, perhaps because doing so would have reminded the president’s audience that Tehran and Moscow are calling the shots in Syria. Assad’s continued survival is largely down to Obama’s refusal to solidify his vague commitment to a future for Syria without the dictator in place. And while Obama would have us believe that there is no long-term future for Assad, the Russians and the Iranians have put boots on the ground for the express purpose of ensuring that he does have one.
Which brings me to the siege of Madaya, a town to the north of Damascus that was once a winter resort. For over a year, Madaya has been an open-air concentration camp. In early January, photos emerged of some of its 40,000 starving and emaciated residents, who have subsisted on such delicacies as stray dogs and boiled leaves for several months now. There was something of an outcry over these images, enough to persuade the Syrian regime to allow a U.N. aid convoy entry into the town. But the underlying strategy here—using the denial of food and medical assistance as a weapon of war—has not changed.
Responsibility for this crime against humanity lies squarely with Assad’s forces and their allies from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamist terror group that is also heavily supported by Iran—and not with Islamic State. And if the mockery of Madaya’s plight by Assad’s supporters on social media is anything to go by, it is a crime this brutal and vicious regime is extremely proud of.
On Facebook and Twitter, Assad loyalists have posted photographs of sumptuous banquets—huge plates of of kebabs, grilled fish, salads, desserts, and the like—“in solidarity with the siege of Madaya.” As Beirut Syndrome, a blog, pointed out, some of these people have fallen for the regime’s propaganda that the siege is a myth. Others, however, are positively rejoicing at the suffering of Madaya’s inhabitants, and are using the images of food for their amusement.
Take, for example, Jihad Zahri, a cameraman with Lebanon’s Al Jadeed TV, who posed for a selfie in front of his well-stocked refrigerator. Or take Charbel Khalil, a Lebanese television producer, who posted an image of starving Somalis on Facebook with the caption, “The Mayor of besieged Madaya and some members of the town council.” (Because, of course, if someone is starving, then they must be from Africa—get it?) These two specimens were among dozens of similar posts.
The point here is not so much the moral sewer these online shenanigans represent. One reasonably expects citizens of a civilized society like ours to recognize cruelty when they see it. Rather, it is the fact that Western policy has enabled this kind of behavior. Our collapse in the face of these war crimes simply encourages the dehumanizing rhetoric that Madaya’s people have been subjected to. That it has now reached the level of gloating is not an aberration, but a natural outgrowth of the Syria policy that this White House has pursued—indeed, Madaya would very likely have been spared the siege had Obama made good on his 2013 threat to bomb Assad’s forces following their deployment of chemical weapons against their own population.
For that reason, any talk from Obama about healing Syria’s broken society is simply nauseating. The president’s sole imperative is to keep the nuclear deal with Iran alive, and he will not even look at a policy that might undermine this critical component of his legacy.
That is why Assad, Hezbollah, and their Iranian backers will carry on getting away with these monstrous atrocities in Syria. It is why Islamic State has been able to exploit Sunni Arab resentment against the ruling Alawite minority to deadly effect.
It is also why the Iranian regime can seize U.S. naval personnel, parade them before news cameras in violation of the Geneva Convention, and then secure the gratitude of our own secretary of state, John Kerry, for finally releasing them. And it is why, when Obama makes the fatuous claim that the “people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead—they call us,” America’s adversaries laugh as heartily and cynically as those who gain pleasure from the suffering of Madaya
There is an alternative, as there always has been: working for the elimination of the Assad regime and Islamic State. Make that point to White House officials, and you will encounter a patronizing grin followed by an explanation as to why we can’t be the world’s policeman, why we can’t afford to antagonize Russia and Iran, and why the threat to our own security from the Middle East has been grotesquely exaggerated by folks who don’t realize that the real challenge is climate change.
Excuse follows excuse in order to camouflage America’s international humiliation. But make no mistake: we have been humiliated, and Obama’s successor will have to forge a foreign policy from this point of departure.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).