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To Putin or to Pout

No serious Syrian or outside observer believes that the Obama administration will end its timidity regarding Russian-Iranian-Assad machinations in Syria

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

The much vaunted “cessation of hostilities” in Syria is collapsing, under the relentless violations of the Syrian regime’s conventional forces and its auxiliary Shiite Jihadi fighters, mostly in the form of aerial bombardment of civilian targets, designed in part to make it impossible for the representatives of the opposition forces to continue the “peace talks” in Geneva.

And once again, senior American officials from President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry on down, are reduced to invariably and impotently appeal or beseech or urge Russian officials to lean on Assad to soften his industrial scale brutality against Syrian civilians. Every time President Vladimir Putin moves and creates facts on the ground, and leaves behind a trail of blood and tears from the Ukraine to Syria, Obama analyses, and muses and then stoically pouts.

Ever since the cessation of hostilities was put into effect in late February, everything the Syrian regime has done on the ground demonstrates convincingly that it intends to exploit the lull in the fighting to improve its position militarily and logistically, to move decisively when the time is ripe “for the kill” against the rebel held areas of Aleppo, the country’s largest city, and the most important strategic prize in Northern Syria.

In recent days Assad’s killer air force rained barrel bombs on crowded markets in the historic rebel held town of Maarat al-Nu’man, and the town of KafrNabl, in Noethwestern Syria killing and wounding scores of civilians. KafrNabl, also known as Kafranbel, became famous during the uprising, for its sharp and witty banners written in eloquent English about the stamina and the yearnings of the Syrian people under fire and the silence of the world.

One of the remarkable results of the reduced terror from the skies in recent weeks was the quick resurrection of the spirit of defiance and the grass root peaceful activism of the early stages of the uprising in towns like KafrNabl and others which are under the control of the oppressive al-Nusra. Local Coordination Committees, representing the resilience of civil society, sprung up with full force, and people resumed their public protests against both the murderous Assad regime and the abominable al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra.

At the urging of Moscow, and with significant Russian areal support, the Syrian regime regained control over the city of Palmyra in central Syria – In fact President Vladimir Putin predicted the defeat of the Islamic State ISIS in Palmyra few weeks earlier – as well as waging attacks against positions held by Jabhat al-Nusra another terrorist group not included in the cessation of hostilities. The purpose of these tactical moves was ostensibly to improve Assad’s chances of becoming a potential even if undeclared partner in the International campaign against ISIS, something that might resonate with Western capitals, in the wake of the Paris, and Brussels attacks which were sponsored by ISIS.

Rhetoric vs. reality

Publicly, the US government continues to support a peaceful outcome to the war in Syria that would lead, through a transitional period to a post-Assad Syria. But privately, the Obama administration is counseling the Syrian opposition groups to lower their expectations of the impending departure or demise of their tormentor, hauled up in his splendid isolation in Damascus, with rare public forays with his Desdemona as a décor for a mass killer, as we have seen him recently voting in his latest sham elections.

No serious Syrian or outside observer believes that the Obama administration will end its timidity regarding Russian-Iranian-Assad machinations in Syria

Hisham Melhem

President Obama gave us yesterday his latest musings on the Assad-Putin duo, while expressing his concerns over the fate of the cessation of hostilities: “keep in mind that I have always been skeptical about Mr. Putin’s actions and motives inside of Syria. He is, along with Iran, the pre-eminent backer of a murderous regime that I don’t believe can regain legitimacy in his country, because he has murdered a lot of people”.

The analyst-in-chief is correct obviously, but in reality this prognosis cannot hide the fact that the Obama administration is gradually moving to Putin’s position on Syria, particularly regarding Assad’s fate, where the Russians would like him to remain in power during the envisioned transition. In fact the US and Russia intend to codify that in a new constitution. It is nothing short of a flight of fancy to think that a constitution for a new Syria can be drafted with Chemical Assad still in power.

Fighting and negotiating

Both the United States and Russia for different reasons would like to see a somewhat viable peace process (again, that much abused term) at Geneva. The Americans hope that the process would begin with the release of prisoners from Assad’s dungeons, and humanitarian assistance reaching the besieged and starved communities that Assad has subjected to the worst medieval forms of punishment.

The Obama administration would like to see a “process” that would allow political talks to proceed while a tenuous calm would prevail in Western Syria, so that the American military and its international and local partners will concentrate their war on ISIS. President Obama knows that ISIS will survive him, but he would like very much to decapitate the leadership of the fake Caliphate, and add the pretend Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to the trophies that he collected in his war against al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Just as President Obama escalated the drone and Special Forces war against al-Qaeda following the “Christmas Day bombing attempt” in 2009 of theNorthwest Airline Flight 253 over the city of Detroit by Omar Farouk Abd al-Mutalab, a Nigerian recruited and trained by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), he has been escalating the war on ISIS following the bombings in Europe and San Bernardino.

If Abd al-Mutalab had succeeded, President Obama could have conceivably kissed his second term goodbye, hence his escalation against al-Qaeda which was both a national security imperative, as well as a necessity for Obama’s political survival. Clearly, Obama believes that decapitating ISIS and bleeding it is a national security imperative, but also Obama is genuinely concerned that another ISIS organized or inspired attack against the homeland will tarnish his record as the hunter of ISIS.

Russia’s military intervention came at a time when Assad’s forces were spread too thin. Just as the military interventionof Iran and Hezbollah saved the Syrian regime in 2013, Russia’s massive bombings of Syrian opposition groups, mostly in the Aleppo and Idlib areas, where there are no ISIS controlled towns, has strengthened Assad’s position, but it did not alter fundamentally the balance of power on the ground so far, because the Syrian regime’s lack of manpower has prevented it from enlarging the area under its control.

Putin’s announcement of the “withdrawal” of Russian forces was meant as a reduction of forces, to signal to Assad that Russia’s military role has limits, and that any ground campaign against Aleppo should be conducted by Syrian, Iranian and Shiite forces.

A twin headed-monster

It is almost inevitable that the cessation of hostilities will collapse, and with it the Geneva “process”, because the Assad regime and its main protector Iran, as well as Russia are determined to deal the moderate Syrian opposition a severe blow by trying to occupy the whole city of Aleppo, hoping that this would be a game changer. If this happens, Assad will then insist with Russian support to be a tacit, if not a serious ally in the war on ISIS.

This nightmarish situation is mostly the result of Washington’s refusal to understand the symbiotic relations between the Assad regime and ISIS and act accordingly. From the beginning of the uprising Assad was determined to make it a conflict between the so-called “secular” Syrian state and Islamist extremists, hence his calculated release early on of a large number of hardened Islamists from Syrian jails.

The US lost its credibility as a serious foe of the Assad regime, when it refused repeatedly to challenge, deter or punish the regime even after its use of chemical weapons against civilians. Washington’s insistence on getting signed commitments from the small number of Syrian fighters it trainedthat they will engage ISIS in battle and spare the regime’s forces was the last straw.

The Syrians, who have been struggling against the Assad tyranny for five years, are also willing to struggle simultaneously against ISIS and other Islamists who would like to take Syria into the dark side. The enemy in Syria is a two-headed monster. One head is in Damascus, the other is in Raqqa.

By the sword

Only the sword will finish the regime in Damascus, or will force it to seek a negotiated outcome that will lead to its political demise. No serious Syrian or outside observer believes that the Obama administration will end its timidity regarding Russian-Iranian-Assad machinations in Syria.

Obama will continue his limited war against ISIS hoping to degrade it and prevented from attacking the homeland during the remaining months of his tenure, and wishing his successor good luck in destroying the Caliphate. President Obama and his peripatetic secretary of state seem hapless and impotent when dealing with Putin.Syrians will remember Obama’s pout for a long time to come.

Putin stormed Syria, and like the ancient invaders from the East he scorched the earth, and bled everything standing; men, women, trees and stones. And after the seventh month, he rested while observing with admiration his desolation then claimed withdrawal. Putin’s trail of blood and tears in Syria will be remembered like those of Tamerlane and Hulagu.

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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 US-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.