Barring the unforeseen, I think Barack Obama’s Syrian foreign policy will go down as the worst part of his presidency. His chief mistake was to talk big while producing small actions during that nation’s decent into hell over the past four years. The biggest mistake of all was to insist that Assad must go without accurately assessing his staying power with the aid of Russia and Iran.
Perhaps heady from deposing Kaddafi in Libya, Obama miscalculated the will of the international community to force Assad’s leaving and was too ambivalent about our own role to provide much leadership. At the time Putin and the leaders of China seemed to feel they were being played in Libya, that they never endorsed a regime change, but only a protective no fly zone. They did not want a repeat of that and vetoed UN efforts to put some sanctions on the Assad regime.
Assad has gone nowhere and now with Russia’s increased backing (along with Iran’s), he seems even more likely to stick around, at least as long as Vladimir Putin finds him useful. Putin’s incursion into Syria has put Obama in an awkward situation, fertile ground for more ambivalence to blossom. We have conveniently ignored international law in our supportive efforts to rebels we more or less like in Syria in that our aid has usually been given covertly via our CIA.
Not that it is a big secret, but when you support some group with the CIA it is not something you want to hold up for attention as they don’t adhere closely to international norms. Meanwhile, Putin can make himself look like the protector of these norms by backing the established government in Syria. Whatever we might think of Assad, his is the established government.
So, we have Putin’s planes and missiles bombing the “terrorists” in Syria but he makes no distinction between the rebels we like and ISIS whom we despise. Actually, one can infer a distinction. That the terrorists he is concentrating on are not ISIS, but our preferred rebels who have been making strides in weakening the Assad regime
Here is our dilemma. Putin is clearly bombing rebels whom we have supported and all the Obama administration has been able to come up with publicly is a verbal condemnation of Putin’s actions and some kind of air war agreement with Russia to make accidental clashes in Syria’s skies between our air forces less likely.
It has been reported that covertly we are now supplying our preferred rebels with a Santa-like abundance of anti-tank weapons from Saudi Arabia via our CIA. Actually smaller quantities of those arms have been surprisingly effective in weakening Assad’s forces, which may have prompted Putin’s stepping up his support. But that quiet support is lost in the news shuffle and we appear to be doing nothing in response to Putin’s attacks.
Right at this moment Russian planes are assisting government troops attempting to secure Aleppo in northern Syria. It is reported that there has been an influx of several hundred Iranian troops and Hezbollah rebels to aid in this fight. Meanwhile Putin continues to speak about his attacks in Syria as if most were aimed at ISIS, while the reality is just the opposite.
So, basically Putin is working against our interests while lying about it, his m. o. I would say.
The big question is how much does our inaction hurt our “super power” credibility in the Middle East and perhaps on the world stage? When it comes to that credibility, how does one measure it? I don’t know, but those who insist we need to push back harder on Putin believe the harm is great. Others argue that our true interests are not at stake and emphasize the need for caution.
The debate is alive in the White House as described in an article in Politico: Rift in Obama Administration Over Putin, though those pushing for more action are losing the argument for now. The Christian Science Monitor examines the credibility issue and how some of our allies in the region may become drawn to Putin’s decisiveness and determination when compared with Obama’s image of indecisiveness.
A defender of Obama’s cautiousness can be found in this article in Reuters with the catchy title: How to respond to Russia in Syria while avoiding world war three. The writer argues that our important interests are not being challenged by Putin and cautions against over reaction. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really have an answer to the problem other than Obama must give up the notion that Assad must leave so that talks can begin to stabilize the country.
After four years of asserting Assad must go I can not imagine Obama allowing him to stay, so if some form of peace is to come some day to Syria it will be at a time of Putin’s choosing, his deciding he would be better off without Assad.
In the meantime we may just keep waiting and seeing.
(P. S. – IF YOU HAVE MADE IT ALL THE WAY TO THE END OF THIS POST, I ADMIRE YOUR TENACITY. THANK YOU. THE SYRIAN SITUATION IS SO COMPLEX AND IN MY MIND DANGEROUS TO WORLD ORDER THAT I NEEDED TO PUT AT LEAST THIS MUCH DOWN TO BEGIN TO REALLY EXPLORE THE ISSUE.)