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The Road to Damascus

Michael Totten was recently at a meeting in Morocco where the "friends of the Syrian resistance" conferred at a truce in a posh resort. The girls were pretty, the scenery spectacular and the food excellent among participants dressed in Western fashion "hunched over laptops and iPads":

Pre-packaged videos play during breaks in the main room. They're professionally-made short documentaries about the atrocities being committed a few thousands miles to the east. You could dismiss them as propaganda, but they seem solid enough and not terribly different from what I've seen on Frontline, which aired an outstanding two-part program in the United States a few weeks ago.

An air of well-funded competence permeated the proceedings. "The meeting is taking place at a luxurious resort that's well out of my price range. I'm down the road at a nice enough place, but this resort really is something...cops at the Friends of Syria gathering in Marrakech look perfectly capable of putting down a serious ground assault by terrorist forces. You can tell just by looking at them."

Later in the proceedings representatives of the U.S. and British governments turned up to put a half-stamp on proceedings:

This time the United States is announcing policy changes. Washington now recognizes the Syrian opposition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. And it considers the armed Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization. ... Now Britain is speaking. The room is still quiet. The United Kingdom is expanding its assistance to the Syrian opposition and is doing so publicly, on the record.

They were late to the party. The leader of the Syrian opposition has now said it no longer needs foreign forces to topple Assad. But it's really no party, as Totten observes, just the calm before the storm. "The Syrian opposition is only united temporarily. Secular and Islamist factions will battle it out in the aftermath. They know it. Believe me, they do. They're united right now because they have to get rid of Assad. They'll settle their own accounts later. Sunnis and Alawites are likely to slug it out, too. And there might even be fighting between Arabs and Kurds. When the next phase starts in earnest, there will be no sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people."

The question, according to John Hannah writing in Foreign Policy, is what Obama will do when the fireworks start. He was standing around observing the fuses being lit. When it blows ... Hannah writes: "watching the nightmare in Syria unfold, you have to ask yourself: Could the Obama administration have made a worse hash out of the situation if it had tried?"

Short of an outright Iranian victory that saw the Assad regime's power fully restored, it's hard to imagine a more dire set of circumstances for U.S. interests. The Syrian state is well on its way to imploding. A multiplicity of increasingly well-armed militias are rushing to fill the vacuum. At the forefront of the fight are a growing number of radical Islamist groups, including some affiliated with al Qaeda. The prospect that Assad' s demise will be accompanied by the use (and/or proliferation) of chemical weapons and massive communal bloodletting gets higher by the day. Libya on steroids is what we're looking at, only this time not on the distant periphery of the Middle East but in its heartland, a gaping strategic wound that is likely to threaten the stability and wellbeing of Syria's five neighbors -- critical American partners all -- for years to come.

Does it require saying that it need not have been this way? That with sustained American leadership over the past 21 months the most threatening aspects of this crisis could not only have been seriously mitigated, but U.S. interests significantly advanced?

His wistful look back at lost opportunities would have required more competence than US foreign policy has demonstrated of late.  It wasn't as if nobody saw the cliff rising up before them. Hannah reminds readers that there was a whole chorus of foreign policy pundits who warned the administration about "leading from behind."

But no one in the administration deigned to listen, probably because they thought they were so much smarter than everyone else. As Totten notes, they've belatedly awakened from their dream of superiority only to see the house on fire, the flames already flickering at the feet of the bed.

Too late for much now.  At this late stage the only remaining question is probably: how bad will it be? Hannah hopes it's not too late to run out with the baby in one hand, the wife in the other, and the ancestral family portrait between the teeth.  But as for the house ... well, it was nice while it lasted:

Belatedly, it seems to have dawned on the administration that simply sitting on the sidelines, allowing events to play out while hoping for the best might not accrue to U.S. interests, and could well prove catastrophic. But having waited so long to act, the window of opportunity that was once available for shaping an outcome consistent with U.S. concerns has narrowed considerably, if not closed. ...

It was less than two years ago that the uprising in Syria presented the United States with a historic opportunity to weaken Iran and advance our own regional interests. Today, Syria looms as a potential strategic disaster, where America's options for positively shaping outcomes have all but vanished, and frantic efforts at damage limitation are all that remain. In the arc of that transformation from hope to despair lies the tale of a colossal policy blunder, perhaps the Obama administration's most serious to date, one whose consequences will almost surely haunt us long after the president leaves office.

If Assad had only been replaced by a stable, U.S.-friendly regime, events in Syria could have been an unambiguous victory for the Obama administration.  He would have been sitting pretty. But, never missing a chance to miss a chance,  Obama has bought into chaos that could lead to a Middle East greatly influenced by al-Qaeda and spreading instability in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey.

Disaster. But as the November elections showed, the administration's voter base is perfectly capable of ignoring a nearby blaze and remaining blind to the lurid flames for so long as they can be distracted by the latest media-produced spectacular.