President Obama can thank his lucky stars for the inability of the US news media to focus on more than one story at a time. Their choice, reasonably enough, has been the fascinating and vastly colourful 2016 presidential race. Otherwise it might have been the debacle that is Washington’s policy over Syria.
I’ve been living in the US for 25 years, arriving just as the first President Bush was staging a stunning projection of American power and leadership in the first Gulf War. A quarter of a century on, the ghastly war in Syria has left Barack Obama looking weaker and less effectual on the world stage than any of his predecessors since Jimmy Carter.
Yes, the mess in Syria is hideously complex, a morass of conflicting interests and ideologies, and competing priorities – and, yes, a ceasefire of sorts was announced on Friday in Munich by John Kerry, the Secretary of State, and his Russian opposite number, Sergei Lavrov. The main parties to the civil war are agreed on a “pause” in hostilities, due to begin at the end of this week, coupled with the immediate despatch of aid to prevent a humanitarian disaster. One prays it succeeds. But none of this masks the fact that US policy over Syria has been a terrible failure. The blame extends to the West as a whole, but it is the US, the leader of the West to whom the world instinctively looks at such moments, that must bear the brunt of it.
Within the US, it should be said, Obama has not been alone in sinking to the occasion. One might have expected the Syrian crisis to provoke some serious discussion among the rival Republican presidential candidates. Do they not, after all, represent the party traditionally held to be a “safer pair of hands” on national security matters?
But no. Their thoughts on the matter hardly extend beyond making it harder than ever for Syrian refugees to get to the US – see Donald Trump’s call for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the country, a proposition supported by two-thirds of Republican voters in last week’s New Hampshire primary – and puerile threats to “make the desert sands glow” with US air strikes.
Obama has been America’s leader since the Syrian crisis began in 2011, and since then it has been much talk but little action. The Assad regime, we were told, must fall, and would do so quickly. Yet the US did not give aid to rebel groups that might have made this happen, nor did it set up a safe area for civilians in northern Syria, protected by a US-enforced no-fly zone, as many were urging at the time.
Then came Obama’s infamous declaration about Bashar al-Assad crossing “a red line” if he used chemical weapons against civilians. The regime did use them, but Obama blinked and did nothing – other than allow Russia, protector power of Assad, to take the initiative in negotiating a deal to get rid of those weapons. Cynical and duplicitous, but relentlessly focused on protecting Russian interests in Syria, Vladimir Putin has never relinquished that initiative since.
When Russia began its bombing in support of Assad, Obama predicted the intervention would lead to disaster. Instead, it seems on the brink of producing a military solution that US diplomats have insisted was impossible. US materiel support for the rebels seems to be drying up. With Russian air strikes pounding rebel positions, Assad’s forces appear close to recapturing Aleppo, something that may be achieved in these few days before the “cessation of hostilities” takes place. If it does at all.
Even the eternally optimistic Kerry was cautious. “What we have here are words on paper,” he said in Munich. “What we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground.” So confident is Assad that he boasts in interviews that he will retake all of Syria. The US, meanwhile, quietly concedes that he will stay, at least until Syrians agree on the shape of a future government. Some hope.
As for the notion of a no-fly zone to protect civilians, that has been rendered moot by Russia’s air operations. In short, the US has virtually no leverage in the crisis – unless it moves to a more robust Plan B, hinted at by some officials here. In reality, this would amount to a complete policy reversal, with stepped-up help for the rebels and military action against Assad: in other words, precisely the deeper US involvement that Obama has wanted to avoid, and that ordinary Americans, soured by Iraq and Afghanistan, absolutely do not want. And, needless to say, it would mean a direct face-off with Putin.
Perceived American weakness in Syria, coupled with the concessions that Iran has extracted over its nuclear deal with the West, has also unsettled many of the Washington’s traditional allies in the region: will the US stand up for them when the chips are down? Some are plain furious. America regards the Kurds as the most effective opponents of Isis, but Turkey regards them as terrorists – which has led to President Erdogan accusing Washington, in its refusal to declare a Syrian Kurdish group a terrorist organisation, of turning the region “into a sea of blood”.
It is hard to imagine any recent US president allowing this sort of thing to happen. Certainly not the first President Bush. Nor Bill Clinton, for all his early wobbles over disintegrating Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide. There followed the US-brokered Bosnian accords, and the US-led Nato bombing which forced Yugo- slav forces out of Kosovo. Nor could George W Bush, however wrong-headed and foolish his invasion of Iraq, be said to have projected weakness.
In his determination to avoid such mistakes, Obama has over-corrected. Cool, detached and supremely rational, he believes that others will act rationally and decently as well. In Syria, tragically, they have not, and America has been humbled. Clinton has been haunted by his failure to stop the slaughter in Rwanda. Syria may well be the nightmare that haunts Obama.
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