Syria is low on Obama’s priority list

Friday 16/10/2015
Wrong call

US President Barack Obama has a blunt message for the people of Syria: Your plight is “heartbreaking” but climate change and a nuclear-free Iran are higher on my priority list.

Long criticised for indecisive­ness and lack of leadership on the most bloody and complex war in recent history, the US president explained his rationale for not getting involved more closely in an unusually testy television interview two weeks after Russia changed the geopolitical balance in Syria with an intervention reminiscent of the Cold War.

Obama reacted with obvious irritation to a remark by his interviewer, Steve Kroft of CBS, that his leadership role in the Middle East was being challenged by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “My definition of leader­ship would be leading on climate change,” Obama responded. “My definition of leadership is mobilising the entire world community to make sure that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon.”

In contrast, he said, Putin had shown his leadership at home by running Russia’s economy into the ground and abroad by having to send troops to Syria to prop up his only ally in the Middle East, Bashar Assad. The argument that Putin made his move in Syria to deflect attention from Russia’s economic problems is part of administration talking points predicting that Putin’s venture could end as badly as his Soviet predecessors’ long war in Afghan­istan. Perhaps.

But Washington predictions on the course of events in Syria must be taken with more than a pinch of salt — there is a long trail of misjudgments and wrong fore­casts that have prompted critics to say the Obama administration’s Syria policies have been based on fantasy and wishful thinking. That began even before peaceful pro-democracy protests morphed into an armed uprising and later into a multisided war. In March, 2011, Obama’s then secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, described Assad as a reformer.

Later that year, conventional wisdom in Washington held that the Syrian leader’s days were numbered. One senior official handling Syrian affairs, Frederic Hof, called Assad a “dead man walking”.

Team Obama did no better in its assessment of the Islamic State (ISIS), a group the president dismissively likened to a junior varsity basketball team in January 2014, just a few days after the militants overran the Iraqi city of Falluja at the beginning of a lightning campaign to seize large parts of Iraq and Syria, where they established a de facto capital in the city of Raqqa.

The administration vastly underestimated the strength and appeal of ISIS and overestimated the prospects of identifying, arming and training “moderate” fighters who could put enough military pressure on the Assad regime to bring it to the negotiat­ing table. Obama pulled the plug on the $500 million programme on October 9th, after the military conceded it had resulted in training just a handful of fighters.

In an interview aired two days after the end of the programme was announced, Obama said he had been sceptical “from the get-go” about the notion of raising a proxy army but gave the green light anyway as an experi­ment.

Was the long string of misjudg­ment on Syria the result of “magical thinking,” as some critics insist, or flawed intelli­gence from a complicated battlefield where 7,000 different groups are active? (The number comes from the Carter Center, a think-tank). The Pentagon and lawmakers have begun looking for an answer to this question.

The Pentagon investigation is being conducted by its inspector general and was prompted by complaints from 50 intelligence analysts working for the US military’s Central Command. They claim that senior officers manipulated assessment of the fight against ISIS and the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al- Nusra, to fit the administration’s reports of progress in the fight against them.

Meanwhile, lawmakers on the intelligence committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate — both Republican-led — are looking at reports that the United States’ vast intelligence apparatus had been taken by surprise by the speed and magni­tude of the Russian intervention. According to one account, America’s spies had predicted more Russian training and arms rather than direct intervention.

How and when the Syrian nightmare will end is anyone’s guess but it seems like a safe bet that the Syrian tragedy will leave a dark stain on Obama’s foreign policy legacy.