The Iran deal: President Obama’s legacy to the Syrian people

By now Obama must have an eye on his legacy. But what will his legacy be?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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It is the middle of 2015. The U.S. 2016 presidential race is already well on its way, with dozens of candidates declared. And President Obama is at the end of his last term. By now he must be having an eye on his legacy. But what will his legacy be?

Iraq and Syria are burning and there is nothing to suggest that it will get any better any time soon. Relations with Russia are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War – and President Putin has recently announced that Russia will boost its nuclear arsenal with 40 missiles this year, just as the U.S. and NATO have bolstered defenses on the Alliance’s eastern border in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. Talk of a new Cold War is not altogether misplaced, even if the U.S. and Russia are still collaborating in some geopolitical endeavors. And Afghanistan? The Afghan government is already being forced to negotiate with the Taliban, a process which will likely lead to some kind of uncomfortable compromise –especially uncomfortable for those Western nations which have invested a decade, trillions of dollars and many, many lives into establishing a democratic, civilian administration in the country.

Obama is not leaving behind a better world. True enough, he did not start the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but nor can it be said that he has helped the situation very much. And with everything else going on, Obama is very close to leaving no foreign policy legacy to speak of – or certainly not one that anyone would boast about. Unless he somehow manages a significant coup – something on the scale of Nixon’s success with China.

Unfortunately, it looks like Assad is likely to be one of the biggest winners of this deal, while the Syrian people will be the biggest losers

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

And if anything is going to serve that purpose, it will have to be the deal just announced between Iran and the U.S. (and the other members of the Group of 6): the deal will severely limit Iran’s nuclear program, while the West will lift sanctions and welcome Iran back into the international fold. Just a few years ago such a deal would have been inconceivable. But now, all the stars were perfectly aligned: Obama needed this to cement his legacy, John Kerry as Secretary of State was the best man for the negotiations – he even has Iranian family relations in his son-in-law, and all the while, the Iranian negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had studied in the U.S. and has U.S. children. If any group of people could have made this deal happen it was these people.

Human suffering

One has to be hopeful for this deal. The rivalry between Iran and the U.S. in the Middle East has produced a huge amount of human suffering over the decades – it has produced sectarian fighting, terrorism, coups d’etat, proxy wars and many other horrors. Perhaps now, in an age where the two are de facto allies and mutually dependent on each other in the fight against ISIS in the Levant, some of these fronts can be scaled down or even retired, if some measure of trust can be built between the two sides.

But we must also be weary. It is telling that that the first person to congratulate the Iranians on the deal was Bashar al-Assad. Let us not forget Iran’s role in many of the region’s conflicts and the fact that it is bankrolling many of the regimes and (terrorist) factions opposed to us in the region. Unfortunately, this deal does not also mean that everything else will now be resolved. And certainly not for the Syrian people, who are still bombed, gassed and shot at from two (or more) sides?

Unfortunately, it looks like Assad is likely to be one of the biggest winners of this deal, while the Syrian people will be the biggest losers. Lifting the sanctions is expected to lead to a boom for the Iranian economy (Western investors are already counting their returns). And as Iran will undoubtedly use some of the windfall to further extend its regional influence. Assad can expect increased financial and logistical support for his regime, as well as further subsidies to his military apparatus, as he continues to work within the Iranian sphere of influence. One fifth of the Syrian population are now refugees. And the situation now can only get worse.


Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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