Obama’s Syria policy under attack

Friday 26/02/2016
Questioned strategies. President Barack Obama speaks at the Pentagon, last December.

Washington - It is rare in these days of intense partisan politics in the United States to have a convergence of views on a major policy issue but that seems to be happen­ing vis-à-vis US President Barack Obama’s Syria policy, especially in think-tank and academic communi­ties.
That trend, however, is bad news for the Obama administration be­cause the growing consensus to­wards his policy in Syria is negative.
It is not surprising that conserva­tive analysts are highly critical of Obama’s approach. Indeed, many opinion articles in opposition to the administration’s policy are written by conservatives who served in the George H.W. Bush administration, or who may be aspiring to work in a new Republican administration.
Michael Singh, who worked for the Bush administration and is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote such an article for the January 29th edition of the Wall Street Journal’s blog titled How US Concessions Threaten the Syria Peace Talks Before They Start.
Singh argued that, in the face of Russian air strikes and Syrian Presi­dent Bashar Assad’s military actions on the ground, “US policy positions have steadily retreated” to the point where the insistence that “Assad must go” has been replaced by “As­sad can stay through a transitional period”.
Singh said it is “short-sighted” for the Obama administration to disregard the sentiments of the Syr­ian rebels who want Assad to leave. He ominously predicted that, if the United States continues to alienate the opposition, “many may gravitate towards the groups we hoped they would fight: ISIS and al-Qaeda”.
Senior policy analyst Tzvi Kahn of the conservative-leaning Foreign Policy Initiative wrote on February 3rd: “By accepting the Russian and Iranian position that Bashar Assad can remain in power and failing to offer meaningful military support for the Syrian opposition, the United States has ensured that any negotiat­ed agreement ultimately favours the interests of Damascus and its allies.”
Kahn criticised US Secretary of State John Kerry for “effectively” de­clining to “take sides” in the conflict and implied that pushing for peace talks under the present circumstanc­es merely aids the Assad regime.
These conservative criticisms have been echoed by analysts on the other side of the political spectrum. Respected Syria scholar Steven Heydemann, a professor at Smith College who is affiliated with the more liberal-oriented Brookings In­stitution, was equally tough on the Obama administration.
In a February 2nd article titled The United States botched the Syria talks before they even began, Heydemann said the “recent [US] tilt towards Russia’s position on the fate of [As­sad] — accepting that he might have a role in a future political transition — has undermined prospects for suc­cess, damaged US credibility with the opposition and further eroded America’s leverage in the Middle East.”
Heydemann added that this “shift in US policy has almost certainly made a negotiated settlement in Ge­neva less likely [and] it could well spur the continued escalation of the Syrian conflict”.
And in a joint February 5th opin­ion article in the Washington Post, former US State Department offi­cial Nicholas Burns, who worked in Democratic and Republican admin­istrations; and former US ambas­sador to Iraq James Jeffrey argued that the United States has “fallen short” in “framing a clear, consist­ent and forceful strategy,” which has led to an “uncharacteristically weak negotiating position”. The stronger party, they add, is the “Russia-Iran- Hezbollah axis supporting Bashar Assad’s brutal regime.”
Burns and Jeffery called for dra­matically increasing funding for moderate Sunni and Kurdish forces opposed to Assad and the Islamic State (ISIS) and the creation of a safe zone in northern Syria to protect Syr­ian civilians “with a no-fly zone to enforce it”.
These criticisms have come at a time of mounting US government frustrations over the Syria crisis. Not only did the Geneva conference not get off the ground, as Kerry hoped, but Russia and the Assad govern­ment did not halt military operations against non-ISIS rebels, hindering Kerry’s efforts to obtain a ceasefire.
Nonetheless, the Obama admin­istration hopes to get the disparate parties to the negotiating table. It seems to believe that a call for As­sad’s immediate departure — which the rebels keenly want — would scut­tle the chances for an orderly transi­tion and the Assad government’s cooperation on a ceasefire and a ne­gotiated settlement.
What many American analysts and writers outside the US govern­ment are saying, however, is that the only way for that to happen is to change the military situation in the air and on the ground first.
That means, however, a significant ratcheting up of US military pressure against the Assad regime and Rus­sia and that is unlikely to happen because Obama’s first priority is to weaken ISIS, not Assad, despite the fact that many of the analysts see a clear link between the two.