At a time when Russia and Iran, the biggest supporters of the Assad dictatorship in Damascus, are on the ropes economically because of steep declining oil prices, the Obama administration, mostly by inaction but also by design, is practically propping up the Assad regime.
One could see the contours of a hellish Faustian deal in the making. To put it bluntly, the Obama administration today, almost four years after the Syrian people began their peaceful uprising against the depredation of an entrenched despotic rule, is desperately relying on Russian ‘diplomacy’ and Iranian ‘muscle’ to extricate it from its disastrous policy in Syria.
Iran now for all intents and purposes, as one astute Iraqi Kurd told me, is ‘leading from behind’ the ground war against the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, while the U.S. is leading the air campaign. In this new strange, but not brave Middle East, the hapless Iraqi government is more than happy to play the role of the useful mailman/middleman, delivering and receiving messages among the three frenemies.
While Russia and Iran have been adamantly consistent in their support of the Assad regime, even after its outrageous use of chemical weapons against its own civilians, and after its systematic use of siege and starvation as tools of war against civilian areas under the control of the opposition, the Obama administration kept muddling through from one concession to the next compromise to another retreat and now to outright betrayal of its early promises to the Syrian people, not to mention its own solemn red lines and commitments to punish the Assad regimes for its war crimes.
The state of the American Union and Syrian dis-union
In his State of the Union address Tuesday night President Obama made some fleeting, vacuous references to the outside world that once again exposed a foreign policy, high on rhetoric and moral platitudes, but bereft of strategic vision or substance, from South Asia, to the Middle East, to the Ukraine. The passing reference to Syria however, confirmed explicitly the extent to which the Obama administration has gone in its retreat from its early declared goals in Syria; the removal of Assad and those around him who have been tormenting Syrians for decades, at the end of a political transition that would lead to an inclusive political order representing all Syrians.
After spinning his leadership and claiming that military power has stopped ISIS’s advance – an assertion disputed by reports that ISIS is receiving more foreign fighters than those being killed by allied raids – he framed the modest American assistance to the moderate Syrian opposition as an integral part of the U.S campaign against ISIS.
It is as if the American president was talking about the Syrian moderate opposition which was formed to remove Assad from power, as an American auxiliary force, in an American-led campaign. There was not even the pro-forma reference to the Assad regime and its atrocities, or the need eventually to remove him from Syria’s political future. It is astounding that this insular President is not moved or does not seem to be morally troubled by the ‘worst humanitarian disaster in a generation’ as his own ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power described it; where more than 12 million Syrians ‘currently need humanitarian aid to survive. Five million of those are children’. Syria, is literally and physically disintegrating, and the culprits are numerous; Syrians, and from the neighborhood and beyond, some are active, others watch passively, and the bleeding continues.
Obama as the ‘immovable object’
What makes Obama’s position as the ‘immovable object’ in this tragedy morally depraved, is the simple fact that he was, in part, responsible for allowing the early horrors of Syria to multiply exponentially, when he would not or could not deliver on his promises or threats.
Obama is oblivious to the slow, agonizing death of modern day Syria, which was erected on an ancient land, where once the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Arabs, Crusaders, Turks, Jews, Christians and Muslims left their imprints, engaged in the creation of knowledge, science, of building great cities, and learned from each other, even when they were fighting each other.
One of the oldest Jewish synagogues in the world was in the suburbs of Damascus. In the nearby towns of Saidnaya and Maaloula, Aramaic, the language of Jesus is still spoken. The first organized Church was established in Antioch, a Syrian city for most of its history until the twentieth century. The great Umayyads, who established the first Muslim dynasty in Damascus, built fabulous monuments. The cumulative interactions of these cultures gave us the once glorious cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Antioch, Homs, and Palmyra. When great cities are sacked, or die slowly, regardless if they are called, Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Athens, or Rome, something in all of us dies, as civilized people. Maybe in a decade or two, the Syrian children who are now roaming in the rubble of those cities, barefooted and hungry, will pay us multiple visits with unspeakable wrath.
Pleading with Assad
Gone are the days when Secretary of State John Kerry, would stress the need to help the Syrian opposition politically and materially so that they will force Bashar Assad to change his ‘calculus’ and seeks to negotiate an outcome that will free Syria from his tyranny.
Obama would have been in a much better position, morally, had he not betrayed his own commitments and promises to the Syrian peopleHisham Melhem
Gone are the days, when the ‘Geneva process’ despite its ambiguity, was touted by U.S. diplomats as the track that would lead to a political solution. Now the Obama administration has decided to support a Russian ‘initiative’ to hold peace talks in Moscow in few days between the Syrian regime and supposedly some ‘moderate’ opposition groups. Recently, Secretary Kerry expressed hope that the talks ‘could be helpful’. It was surreal, to see Kerry, appealing, pleading and beseeching Assad to act responsibly, ‘It is time for President Assad, the Assad regime, to put their people first and to think about the consequences of their actions, which are attracting more and more terrorists to Syria, basically because of their efforts to remove Assad’. Kerry must have forgotten that some of his diplomats used to talk about the ‘symbiotic relationship’ between the Assad regime and terrorist groups, mainly ISIS. Of course, when you plead with someone, it is unbecoming to call for their removal.
It is inevitable that the Russian planned talks will go nowhere, since credible moderate opposition figures (Russia on behest of Assad’s regime invited individuals and not groups) will not attend, because most of them suspect that Moscow will be pushing for some vague form of ‘power sharing’ with Assad that will lead to further divisions among the opposition groups. But the fact that Washington is almost desperate for any appearance of movement is stunning. State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf, after she was asked if the U.S. did encourage the opposition to go to Moscow, summed up the administration’s predicament when she said ‘we believe anything that get us towards real progress is good’. Anything?
The Obama administration is supporting another United Nations proposal to have local cease fires, or a ‘freeze’ in the fighting on sensitive fronts beginning with the complex and tragic siege of Aleppo. The U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura has been pushing this approach trying to make Aleppo a model for future cease fires, that could pave the way to a broad cease fire and political settlement, ’I will continue, I can tell you, pushing for Aleppo, because Aleppo has become an iconic example of where things could start sending the best signal’. It is worth noting here, that most such cease fire arrangements in the past were temporary, and/or abused by the Assad regime and led to the fall of besieged neighborhoods. Still, Secretary Kerry welcomed this approach also. The assumption of the United Nations, the U.S. and the Russians is that the Syrians are exhausted, and horrified by the savagery of ISIS and widening foreign interventions in their country, that they would sue for a negotiated solution that would keep Assad in power.
Russian diplomacy and Iranian muscle
The Obama administration is using the stunning rise of ISIS last summer and its invasion and occupation of Western Iraq, and its expansion in Syria as the main reason for its clear albeit quiet and implicit change in attitude towards Assad remaining in power. For the Obama administration, removing Assad from power is no longer a priority. And judging by the statements of Assad’s henchmen, they have seen the shift and they have convinced themselves that they will prevail.
Much has been made recently of Washington’s decision to invest in a new program to train and equip 5000 Syrian fighters in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar beginning this spring. However, the U.S. will not be training them and equipping them to fight the Assad regime (except in self-defense) but to fight ISIS. While the moderate opposition see ISIS as a mortal threat, they are more convinced that ISIS will not be defeated if Assad (their biggest recruiter) remains in power. For the moderate opposition fighters to accept U.S. training and arms, solely to fight ISIS and not fight the Assad regime would expose them to criticism and accusations of betrayal.
The U.S. is increasingly relying on Russian ‘diplomacy’ to contain the conflict in Syria, so that Assad’s forces with considerable Iranian ‘muscle’, in the form of advisors, special Revolutionary Guards forces and the storm troopers of the Lebanese Hezbollah to do battle against ISIS and other radical Sunni groups. There is a diabolical unstated arrangement whereby, the Syrian air force will continue to terrorize the civilians with its barrel bombs, and at the same time sharing Syria’s air space with American and other allied air forces conducting raids against ISIS forces and positions. This arrangement benefits the Syrian regime first and foremost. In Iraq, sometimes the Iranian air force shares Iraqi airspace with allied air forces in bombing ISIS positions and personnel. On the ground, the real ‘deciders’ in Iraq are Iranian advisors under the supervision of General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, who acts as Iran’s actual Viceroy in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Betrayal, Obama style
President Obama is very defensive when he is asked whether his retreat from his threats to punish the Assad regime has contributed to Syria’s agony. And every time he addresses this issue, he engages in exaggerating, dissembling and spinning.
He always insinuates that his critics wanted him to ‘invade’ Syria, when in fact no serious observer of Syria has asked for such a thing. Last week, Obama was at it again during a joint press conference with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Obama was asked whether his decision not to intervene in Syria has attracted foreign fighters, he answered that this ‘mischaracterizes our position. We haven’t been standing on the sidelines. It’s true we did not invade Syria…’ as if an invasion was ever a serious option. These fake protestations don’t hide the fact that the Obama administration sees Iran now as a valuable if unofficial ally in the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
The cause of helping the Syrian people free themselves from the tyranny of the Assad regime is no longer urgent or a priority. President Obama would have been in a much better position, morally, had he not betrayed his own commitments and promises to the Syrian people. Obama will try to cover his betrayal by claiming that he is still helping the Syrian people. He may be immune to any moral anguish, because of his betrayal and because of his actions or inactions in Syria. But he cannot escape Syria’s sorrows being part of his legacy.
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem