Obama in Syria: Blind man’s bluff
US President Barack Obama recently told the UN General Assembly that the Islamic State (ISIS) could not be defeated in Syria if President Bashar Assad remained in office.
What the president conveniently forgot to say was that when he began his campaign against ISIS in 2014, the American focus was solely on Iraq, with little consideration for how to fight the group in Syria.
Worse, at the time Obama sent a secret letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei assuring him that attacks against ISIS in Syria would not target Assad’s forces. Somehow, Obama did not see a link then between Assad’s remaining in office and ISIS expansion in Syria.
Obama’s mood has revealed something recurrent in the United States’ consideration of the Syrian conflict: The president has remained blind to the broader implications of the war there and thus what led to the emergence of jihadi groups in the country. Even Obama’s more recent statements about Assad, while true, failed to define a strategy for getting rid of the Syrian leader. The United States still views the war in Syria as important mainly because of ISIS.
The Russians grasped this early on and ran with it. In March, CIA Director John Brennan displayed US ambiguity when he told the Council on Foreign Relations that the last thing the administration wanted to see was ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra “walk into Damascus”. Brennan added: “None of us, Russia, the United States, coalition and regional states, wants to see a collapse of the government and political institutions in Damascus.”
That is why Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told CBS recently that the Americans “don’t want the Assad government to fall… They want to fight [ISIS] in a way which is not going to harm the Syrian government.”
Churkin’s conclusion was reasonable. In its systematic desire to reduce the Syrian war to ISIS, the Obama administration has signed on to the logic the ambassador outlined: If weakening Assad benefits ISIS, the United States will not weaken Assad.
The Obama administration has often had a one-dimensional approach to the Middle East, reducing policy to digestible chunks and failing to formulate integrated reactions to related regional issues. That is one reason why Washington has been so poor at strategy in recent years, appearing bewildered at every new turn in the Arab world.
It is also why Obama has no real plan for Syria, merely reacting to events after they happen while making general affirmations that invariably are belied by reality.
George Kennan, the US diplomat and person most associated with the policy of containment of the Soviet Union, once lamented the ease with which US officials made public statements that they had no means of implementing. This has been standard fare on Syria, with Obama and others repeatedly saying Assad is finished, only for him to remain.
When will the Americans realise that ISIS is only one part of a far more complicated situation — in Syria, Iraq and even Libya? In Obama’s foolish desire to treat the symptoms of ISIS and not the cause, the United States is getting nowhere. The administration can make all the statements it wants, but unless it is willing to arm its allies and cut the Gordian knot of the Assad presence, no one should take its remarks about Assad too seriously.
The most ludicrous extension of American thinking was the effort to train “moderate” Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. The programme was a failure from the start, largely because a vast majority of Syrians view the battle against Assad as the priority. They did not appreciate being turned by the Americans into mercenaries to fight ISIS on the United States’ behalf.
Did no one see the problem in Washington? The egoism was astonishing: because fighting ISIS was an American urgency, so too should it have been for the Syrians. That was patently not the case, however, and now the useless scheme has been scrapped.
Terrorism is a major problem but in the Middle East — Syria and Iraq in particular — it is one of many. For the West, a terrorist is someone who may disrupt one’s secure, prosperous existence; in many Arab societies, there is no security and prosperity to disrupt.
But the larger question today is what does the US obsession with terrorism mean in Syria? Obama may publicly want Assad to go but, as long as there is no clear transition away from him, the United States will implicitly back a Russian effort to strengthen the Syrian state, even if it means that US-backed rebels are attacked and lose territory.
The Russians have read Obama’s fears well. Churkin is correct in saying that Washington will always prefer Assad to the jihadi groups threatening his regime. American voices may be rising but when the White House judges everything by the benchmark of terrorism, the reality is that Obama won’t readily hinder Russia.