In this strangest of all American elections, Republican candidate Donald J. Trump is being played openly by cunning Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has exploited his vanity by showering him with praise and compliments. Trump, impressed by what he saw as Putin’s strength and thuggery, expressed his admiration of the Russian autocrat and went probably beyond Putin’s wildest expectations, hinting that, as president, he will recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and lift sanctions imposed after the annexation and raised doubt about America’s seventy-year-old commitment to defend its NATO allies, and considerably watered down the Republican Party’s platform on Ukraine.
But what is equally astonishing, is that one could say that Putin has been playing President Obama and his insufferably gullible Secretary of State John Kerry for years in Syria, and in the process extracting a horrific bloody price from the Syrian people. Once again, the President of the United States found himself few days ago, expressing his frustration with Russia because it is not cooperating sincerely in maintaining the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) agreement in Syria by not reining in the mass killing of Syrian civilians by its ally the Assad regime.
But the eternally optimistic President Obama is still willing to test, once again President Putin’s sincerity. In a press conference he held at the Pentagon, after meeting with his senior military advisors Obama opined, “Russia may not be able to get there, either because they don't want to, or because they don't have sufficient influence over Assad. And, that's what we're going to test.” He added; “we go into this without any blinders on. We're very clear that Russia has been willing to support a murderous regime that has -- and an individual, Assad, who has destroyed his country just to cling on to power.” But neither Russia nor the Assad regime were constrained by the CoH since its inception in February 2016. Russia’s fixed wing bombers and Assad’s killer helicopters have been spewing fire, rockets and barrel bombs deliberately on hospitals, schools and bakeries in besieged areas, particularly against the people and defenders of Aleppo.
Greying hair and a dying city
President Obama said that he has been wrestling with Syria’s civil war for years. “I am pretty confident that a big chunk of my grey hair comes out of my Syria meetings and there is not a meeting that I do not end by saying is there something else that we could be doing that we haven't thought of?” One would hope that President Obama would admit someday, maybe in a moment of bliss, deep in retirement that his grey hair may have been caused in part by his dithering, dissembling, deliberate obfuscation, lack of resolve and moral courage throughout the difficult years of his dealing with the Syrian tragedy. From the beginning of the peaceful Syrian uprising in 2011, Obama’s insular White House displayed the naiveté and ignorance of his close circle of advisors about things Arab. One of his wordsmiths spoke with confidence that Syrian President Assad will be swept away by the demonstrators the way presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt were overthrown. Hence the refrain; “Assad’s days are numbered”. That assessment betrayed lack of knowledge of Syrian history, society and the nature of the Assad regime.
When the Assad regime deliberately turned the uprising violent, Obama said in August 2011 that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside”. The fact that there was no “or else” attached to the demand made by Obama, was the beginning of a disturbing pattern of behavior by a president who gives words too much credit in the conduct of international affairs, and who is too cautious to the point of immobility.
More than five years after Syria’s famed cities fell to the systematic industrial scale destruction wrought by the Assad regime, Russia and Iran, the world is haplessly watching the agonizing death of the ancient besieged city of Aleppo, site of exquisite monuments that testify to its rich and varied history and the tenacity of its people. The current battle of Aleppo, could determine the outcome of the Syrian war. Obama’s hair maybe greying, but Aleppo is dying. And all the while President Putin has been playing President Obama on the theatre of death in Aleppo dangling in front of his eyes the prospect of a Faustian deal in the form of a convenient and transient military alliance against the extremist Islamist Fath al-Sha’am , formerly known as al-Nusra Front, which unconvincingly said recently that it is no longer affiliated with al-Qaeda. These are the very Islamists that Assad helped create, with indirect help from Obama’s dithering and failure to deliver on his threats against the Assad regime and promises of sustained help to the opposition.
It shall be written, that when death came to Aleppo, few were genuinely moved, unlike a generation ago, when many American and others who were horrified by the slaughter of civilians in Bosnia, shouted “never again” and forced a reluctant American President to do the right thing to stop the carnage. Aleppo is dying but where is the outrage? Where is the outrage in the majority Arab and Muslim states? In Europe, which is being directly impacted by the Syrian tragedy? Where is the outrage in America? Have we become too numbed because of the unbearable stench of death and dying in the Middle East?
In 2012 the U.S. began secrete negotiations with Iran, in Oman, which eventually led to the nuclear agreement of 2015. In 2013, when the Assad regime was on the ropes militarily, Iran and its Shiite Lebanese proxy Hezbollah intervened militarily and prevented the collapse of the Assad dynasty. President Obama, who was by inclination and temperament opposed to playing an aggressive role in Syria to stop the depredations of Assad and his allies, convinced himself that a strong American role in Syria in support of the opposition could anger Iran and lead to the collapse of the negotiations. From his first inauguration speech in 2009, Obama’s eyes were fixed on the main prize in the Middle East: a breakthrough nuclear agreement with Iran that could lead to a historic opening to a country that has long fascinated Obama. Theoretically, pursuing relations with a pivotal country like Iran is worthy, and seeking a nuclear agreement that would convincingly close Iran’s pathways to a nuclear arsenal is commendable, but why not try to achieve these goals more forcefully and in a way that would deter Iran from dominating Lebanon, prolonging Syria’s agony and dictating political outcomes in Iraq and Yemen?
Trump is being played openly by cunning Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has exploited his vanity by showering him with praise and compliments. But what is equally astonishing, is that one could say that Putin has also been playing President ObamaHisham Melhem
The Obama administration was extremely deferential to Iran in Syria and Iraq. And preserving the nuclear deal has been the single most excuse used to explain America’s passivity in the face of Iran’s rampages in those two countries. But in Syria, we should stress, that President Obama was never serious in fully and honorably delivering on his threats and his promises. Obama was never serious about implementing his demand that Assad steps down in 2011. Obama was never serious about his “red line” threat of the use of military force against the Assad regime issued in 2012. Obama, was pressured by his advisors to reluctantly adopt the “train and equip” program to help the Syrian opposition, therefor he was not serious about its implementation.
A Faustian deal?
It has been almost a year since Russia established new air bases in Syria and commenced its extensive bombing runs mostly against Assad’s nationalist opposition and the Islamist groups that are not designated by the U.S. as terrorist groups such ISIS and al-Nusra, although the intervention was explained as a campaign against the Islamist terrorists. The Obama administration was caught flat footed by the arrival of Russia’s expeditionary force. But the administration did not denounce it very strongly, and did very little to extract a price from Russia. Then came Secretary Kerry’s lame and strange analysis of Russia’s supposedly draining and costly involvement in Syria, which has proven to be totally misplaced.
But the U.S. has traveled a long journey from those early naïve views of Russia’s military role, to today’s serious discussion of establishing a “Joint Implementation Group” to be based in Jordan to coordinate Russian-American military operations against the al-Nusra Front. Russia’s enhanced military profile and operations in Syria, has also enhanced its political and diplomatic profile. Secretary Kerry, who act at times as if negotiations could solve any conflict, has been trying to convince the Russian for months now that if they don’t collaborate in good faith, that there will be unspecified consequences or alternative approaches. In early May Kerry issued an August 1 warning to Assad and Russia that if they don’t deliver on their commitments to the Cessation of Hostilities, there will be “repercussions”. Kerry’s ultimatum implied that there will be a change of course that may include providing the non-Islamist opposition more lethal arms to force Assad to negotiate a transitional period. But when August 1 came, and nothing happened, Kerry found it convenient to blame the Assad regime and al-Nusra Front, but as President Obama said, we still have to do some testing with the Russians, before we reach a final assessment.
Military cooperation with Russia is predicated, as secretary Kerry said many times, on Russia pressuring Assad to stop his aerial terror against civilians, although both Russia and Assad kept hammering Aleppo indiscriminately. But a military alliance with Russia against al-Nusra, will send the wrong messages to all parties concerned. Russia, is very eager to eliminate the allied sanctions imposed on it following the annexation of Crimea, and to restore military to military contacts would welcome such cooperation. But an alliance with Russia will backfire against the U.S. in the Middle East. Even without such collaboration, the region is rife with conspiracy theories about American-Russian conniving to keep the nations there weak and divided. Deterring al-Nusra, requires arming and training the nationalist groups.
Finally, Russia is exploiting the shift from America’s early focus on Syria’s civil war and the murderous terror of the Assad regime, to a war against ISIS and al-Nusra, where the opposition to Assad is an afterthought. President Obama wants to achieve some tactical victories against ISIS and al-Nusra in the twilight of his presidency, while grudgingly acknowledging that he will bequeath to his successor a problem from hell that he had made by his actions and inactions exponentially much worse.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for 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 Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. 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