Obama's last chance to fix almost everything

Story highlights

  • President Obama can improve the situation in Syria, but he will have to recognize his errors, Frida Ghitis says
  • The war in Syria has killed hundreds of thousands and mobilized millions, and the United States should intervene, Ghitis says

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)When 51 officials at the U.S. State Department decided to protest America's policy in Syria they offered a lifeline to President Barack Obama. Unfortunately, he is unlikely to grasp hold of it.

Rarely do presidents have the option of enacting a single new policy with the potential to produce so many positive ramifications in so many areas. Imagine all the good that could come if Obama admitted that his Syria policy has failed and moved to change it.
    Frida Ghitis
    The right actions could start the process of winding down the Syrian war, stabilizing the Middle East, stopping the flow of refugees and cooling the passions that have fueled the rise of extremist politicians.
    The officials who signed the internal memo in the State Department's "Dissent Channel" urged the administration to take very limited "stand-off" military action to forcefully persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to compromise at the negotiating table. That means they recommend shooting from a distance, utilizing air attacks and other weapons that do not require bringing troops to the battlefield. These tactical approaches pose little danger to those firing but send a strong message to the other side. This is hardly the stuff of neocon dreams or war-mongers' agitation.
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    Their aim is to give negotiations a chance of success by showing an inflexible Assad that he must relent, because right now Assad is still barrel-bombing and starving the Syrian people in a way that guarantees not only more death and suffering but also more hatred, more sectarianism, more radicalism and more instability around the world.
    Doing that would help the president repair the one disastrous aspect of his legacy. Under Obama's watch Syria has turned into the world's suppurating wound. According to a study by the Syrian Center for Policy Research, as many as half a million people have been killed there and millions more have become refugees and internally displaced. The reverberations, the rhetoric and the bloodshed, can be felt in countless developments, from Turkey to Britain, from Orlando to Leeds.
    The last U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, resigned two years ago saying he could no longer support U.S. policy. Today he is even more convinced that "the existing policy is failing and will continue to fail."
    If Obama had a penchant for introspection which he has not appeared to have when it comes to Syria, he might see that the suggestions from the Dissent Channel letter not only echo what many senior officials in his own administration -- including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- have told him, but also offer an opportunity to accomplish a slew of important missions before he leaves office.
    Pull the string on many of the world's great crises and the tug almost inevitably reaches all the way to Syria. From the history-making, life-destroying refugee crisis, to the upsurge in nationalistic politics in Europe and the U.S., to the rise in terrorism and the wave of wars sweeping across the Middle East, major developments are propelled by the explosion of chaos in Syria.
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    The president has an opportunity to acknowledge that U.S. policy on the Syrian war has been an unmitigated catastrophe. Obama's decision to keep a mostly hands-off approach to the conflict, even after he declared that President Assad "must go," allowed other players to move into the inferno, stoking the fires of sectarianism and conjuring a brand of terrorism so vile that it made previous terrorist horrors appear mild.
    The White House ignored Assad's barrel bombs and looked away when he used chemical weapons -- even after claiming he had moved them all out of the country. Obama finally decided to take action, but against the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. On the matter of Assad's fate, Washington stepped back meekly, allowing Russia and Hezbollah, Iran's Lebanese ally, to jump in to save the Syrian dictator who has spilled oceans of blood.
    Vladimir Putin, ever more autocratic at home and aggressive abroad, moved into the vacuum. Now Russia sits side by side with the United States at failing talks in Geneva to discuss Syria's future, and Assad confidently vows he will retake every inch of territory. Meanwhile, more Syrians are getting killed, more are fleeing and more extremism is being felt around the world.
    As repugnant and dangerous as ISIS is, Assad is the one whose forces are doing most of the killing.
    It is Assad's brutality that fueled the rise of ISIS, as members of the anti-Assad opposition tried to find a way to make military gains. If the United States and its allies had stepped in early enough to support those who were fighting for democracy, the conflict would have gone a different way. But Obama came to office committed to pull the United States out of the Middle East, and that spelled disaster for Syria's pro-democracy movement.
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    The tsunami of refugees fleeing to Europe combined with the rise of ISIS -- its continued videotaped brutality in Syria and Iraq and its terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere -- produced a predictable backlash in Europe. Fear of more terrorist attacks and concern about large numbers of refugees from the Middle East created a combustible force that boosted nativist politicians to the podiums and amplified their voices.
    The failure in Syria is one of the factors giving rise to dangerous demagogues like Donald Trump in the United States and other versions in Europe.
    The EU is under threat, the global economy is nervous. And murderers like the Orlando killer are soaking up the venomous ISIS rhetoric.
    Obama is un-Trump, as he keeps telling us. Now is the time for him to show just how different he is from the presumptive Republican nominee who excels at praising himself. He should admit his Syria policy failed and move quickly to take the advice of his own State Department officials and achieve much, including removing the onerous baggage of his foreign policy failures from Hillary Clinton.
    If he launches the kind of limited operations suggested by the memo, he would hand Clinton instead of the current calamity a policy that has the potential for putting Syria on track for a possible solution, and would have the added benefit of being more defensible on the campaign trail.The right action could help start the end of al-Assad's reign of terror in Syria, open a path for a return to stability in the Middle East, stop the flow of refugees to Europe and take the wind out of the sails of extremists of all brands. It might also salvage a place in history for Barack Obama's foreign policy.