Obama is not going to save Syria
Signs indicate that Washington is receptive as well to Tehran and Moscow’s terms for a civil war settlement
President Putin’s guarantee of Assad’s survival has led many to call for a change of Obama’s Syria policy. Frankly, a policy re-think is needed. The deepening Russian intervention in the Middle East, Iran’s assertiveness in the region, the growing refugee crisis, the deteriorating stability of Syria’s neighbors, and ISIS’ cancerous spread are all crises that require pro-active American leadership to preserve and to advance U.S. national interests and to support Washington’s allies. However, President Obama is unlikely to use his UNGA speech as a stage to chart a new course, but instead, to defend his current course, which he will hope to maintain until he leaves office in 2017.
An attitude instead of a strategy
Shunning a consistent strategy or set of policies, President Obama has displayed a disinterested attitude towards the civil war. Obama has viewed Syria as another potential misadventure in the Middle East where the U.S. could be drawn into a conflict with few interests at stake and where Washington’s ability to make an effective difference is questionable. American public opinion, even on Assad’s use of chemical weapons, has been broadly divided and has never fully supported a deepened role for the U.S. in the conflict. These poll numbers have only re-enforced Obama’s own disinterest in deepening his involvement. The Iran talks also created disincentives to potentially confront Iran in Syria at a time when a nuclear deal was being negotiated.
Signs indicate that Washington is receptive as well to Tehran and Moscow’s terms for a civil war settlementAndrew Bowen
President Putin’s escalation is the latest example. The White House showed no inclination to respond to the Russian President’s push beyond a few stern words of public criticism. Instead of a strategic pushback, Kerry responded with a public concession that Washington would more seriously consider Russia’s proposals on Assad’s future. The already shaky rhetorical position, “Assad must go,” became even less credible then. Putin’s moves come as well on the heels of the already rising criticism regarding both the “train and equip program” and the Syria refugee policy.
The merits for and against Obama’s Syria policies can fill pages of books for years to come, but these policies’ most salient problem has been their intellectual shortcomings and the absence of any imagination to anticipate and to respond to the civil war’s impact. From the early days assessment that civil war wouldn’t last long and it could be contained in its borders to underestimating the rise of ISIS to not having a pro-active policy to address the refugee crisis, President Obama’s own disinterested perspective cultivated an environment where these questionable assessments were nurtured and the proclivity as well to pursue status quo policies with all their shortcomings.
However, as past episodes have highlighted, events in Syria may push Washington to the point where the administration has to deepen its role when the conditions are the least ideal. So far, President Obama has managed to keep this role limited. Most prominently, the President stepped back from enforcing his “red line” when a deal was reached on chemical weapons disarmament. Despite questions about its effectiveness, the campaign against ISIS in Syria has been largely done by air and the “train and equip” program, despite its cost and the embarrassing few trained, was predicated on a more conservative U.S. role. Equally, so the administration has always cautiously pursued arming the Syrian opposition.
Kerry’s lone diplomatic push
The U.S.’s diplomacy to end the civil war, pushed more so by his Secretary of State John Kerry, has also been half-hearted and sublimated as a third or fourth foreign policy priority. The White House has never wanted to expend the resources necessary to change the calculus of President Assad and his patrons, and instead, has preferred to see what a low resourced policy could achieve as the President pursued other foreign policy and domestic policy initiatives.
Even now with clear U.S. national interests at stake and the consequences of the civil war likely to hit the region for years to come, the further collapse of the Syrian state and the instability around its borders will only re-enforce the Obama’s own perspective that there are no good options for the U.S. to take at present.
Waiting out the clock
President Obama then is unlikely to use his last fifteen months in office to alter course. Obama will focus on addressing effects of the civil war but not the cause. In other words, the White House is frankly more focused on triage than treating the patient who’s on life support.
The only real optimism is that a diplomatic settlement could be reached, but for the time being, by allowing Russia and Iran such a free hand in Syria, the U.S. will not be the one shaping the settlement. Signs indicate that Washington is receptive as well to Tehran and Moscow’s terms for a civil war settlement. Some optimism exists that better relations between Tehran and Washington will make a settlement easier, but such thinking is purely speculative since Tehran hasn’t taken any real substantive steps to bridge its differences with the GCC. The U.S. is also importantly not in a favorable position to push regional allies to support a settlement in light of Obama’s own disinterested approach to the conflict.
Without a diplomatic settlement, Syria’s civil war will unlikely be addressed until 2017 when a new American President enters office. However, by that point, the damage the civil war has wrought on the region is likely to be to such a degree that the U.S. and its allies’ interests and positions in the region are less secure and less stable.
Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, DC.
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