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Look back and ahead in anger

For five long years, the cost of America’s political and military inconsistencies in Syria, its unkept promises and undelivered threats has been staggering

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

Every week I struggle with the topic of my article. Sometimes I am saved by the bell when after a day or two of researching an issue without enthusiasm, when an event, a sudden development, or an unavoidable calamity imposes itself and I go with the flow.

When I find myself about to delve into a subject that I have revisited many times, such as the Syrian tragedy, or America’s current tragicomedy, also known as the presidential election, I agonize to avoid repeating myself. How many ways one can warn people not to vote for a vile charlatan who exploits their anxieties and fears in times of uncertainties, a scoundrel who breathes resentment, delusion and ignorance, and emits more than a whiff of racism? How can one analytically, and yes passionately tell peoples in the Middle East and beyond, that Syria’s slow and horrific journey into the night, will also drag us all into a dark uncharted territory?

A second betrayal of the Syrian people

Avoiding Syria this week was not possible given the revelation that the Obama administration has proposed a new agreement with the Russian government on Syria where the two countries would share intelligence and enhance military coordination that would allow Russia to expand its bombing campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, which has been a leading force fighting the Assad regime. In return, Russia would pressure the Assad regime to stop its aerial attacks against Syrian rebel formations that are either allied with the U.S or not considered terrorist groups by Washington.

Whether the proposed agreement is finalized and implemented or not, the mere fact that the American government, with the blessing of President Obama personally is seeking such an arrangement with Russia represents a stark negation of America’s stated policy on Syria since the beginning of the “Geneva process” which called for the establishment of a transitional governing authority with full executive power formed on the basis of mutual consent.

For five long years, the cost of America’s political and military inconsistencies in Syria, its unkept promises and undelivered threats has been staggering

Hisham Melhem

If the proposed agreement is carried out, its first obvious benefit would be to strengthen the Assad regime, and weaken the very moderate opposition that the U.S. claims it is nurturing. Ultimately, such American-Russian collaboration, which will actually serve Iran’s objectives in Syria, will spell the demise of diplomacy and condemn Syria to a long slow war of attrition. Once again, President Obama would be reneging on his own political commitments, and more damning he would be once again betraying the Syrian people. Few weeks ago, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said, without any hint of irony, that President Obama was “certainly pleased" with his administration's policy on Syria, while admitting that conditions in Syria are “terrible” and “awful” and that the country poses a “heightened risk” to the United States and its interests.

One cannot but compare President Obama’s cold, detached and unprincipled position on Syria with the courageous and principled position expressed two weeks ago by 51 of his diplomats working on aspects of the Syrian war, who called in a dissenting memo for the limited use of military power to compel the Assad regime to seriously engage in negotiations, which was precisely the initial justification of the Obama administration’s early support for the moderate rebels.

Five long years of inconsistencies

With America shifting its priorities in reaction to events on the ground, which frustrated and weakened its purported Syrian allies, the Assad regime and its main bakers; Iran and Russia established a consistent pattern: military force will always be the primary instrument to settle the conflict decisively or barring that to establish a stalemate from a position of strength. Hence the repeated violations of any temporary arrangement to establish local cease fires, or end the siege and starvation practices of the Syrian regime against isolated communities. A corollary to that were the impossible demands and conditions demanded by the regime during the sham negotiation sessions.

For the Obama administration to believe that Russia will honor any commitment not to attack moderate opposition groups fighting the Assad regime, or that President Putin would or could stop Assad’s scorched earth policy against the moderate opposition and the civilians under their control is utterly naïve. Even the peripatetic Secretary of State John Kerry, who probably spend more time in the last few years with his Russian and Iranian counterparts than with his family, and who is reportedly support the proposed agreement with Russia has recently expressed his frustration with Moscow. While in Oslo last month Kerry complained that Russia and the Assad regime were violating the February Cessation of Hostilities agreement and were dragging their feet regarding the delivery of humanitarian supplies to starving and besieged neighborhoods.

A smile and a shoeshine

The problem with Kerry is that he is seen as a man of good intentions, who occasionally huffs and puffs and issues threats, only to be undermined by the White House. For months Kerry threatened a so-called “Plan B”, to pressure Assad and Russia by arming Syrian rebels if Russia and Assad continued their attacks on moderate Syrian opposition groups. But true to form, the White House, by blessing the contacts with Russia to reach an agreement against al-Nusra Front, which in case it was implemented, will likely deal the rebels a serious setback. It was ironic that when the reported talks for the new agreement with Russia were leaked, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency CIA John Brennan was asserting publicly that Russia is “trying to crush” the opposition to Assad, and that Moscow is violating the Cessation of Hostilities, and did not live up to its commitment to the political process, accusations that were repeated by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter after the story of the proposed agreement was leaked.

Since his resignation as the Secretary of State’s Special Representative on Syria, Ambassador Fred Hof, whose knowledge of Syria is immense, has been a consistent and strong critic of President Obama’s maddening approach to Syria. Ambassador Hof told me that Secretary Kerry has absolutely no leverage with Russia. Hof poignantly captured Kerry’s (and Obama’s self-inflicted predicament) succinctly and devastatingly thus: “He still wants to hope that Moscow was sincere when it announced, last September, that it was entering Syria to fight Daesh (ISIS). Yet all of the evidence accumulated since then proves that Russia really intended to save Assad from his nationalist opponents, and that Daesh would be left in place to serve as an example of something arguably worse than Moscow's mass murdering, war criminal client. How then, without leverage, does one become a partner of Putin's Russia in Syria short of conceding on every issue of any importance? Protection of civilians is the coin of the realm in Syria. Without it there can be no end to the country's emptying. Without it there can be no negotiations of any value. And yet the survival strategy of the Assad regime rests entirely on collective punishment and mass murder: a strategy facilitated by and participated in by Russia and Iran. Again: how does one "partner" with actors such as these? And what choices does one have if a smile and a shoeshine are the sum total of what one brings to the table?”

Russia ascendant

Late last year President Obama forcefully denounced Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria vowing not to cooperate with Russia and saying that Moscow’s escalation would lead to a “quagmire” that will ultimately empower the “Islamic State” ISIS. Obama re-iterated his demand that any political resolution to the war must include the departure of Assad: “We’re very clear in sticking to our belief in our policy that the problem here is Assad and the brutality he’s inflicted on the Syrian people and that it has to stop”. Russia’s military intervention in Syria enhanced Assad’s tactical position and helped make it the outside power capable, with Iran and the Assad regime and their surrogate Shiite militias, to create military facts on the ground and to influence and shape the political initiatives, thus eclipsing American diplomacy.

If the purported agreement is implemented, and Russia with Washington’s blessing routed al-Nusra and other Islamist groups occupying a significant part of the city of Aleppo, this would constitute a major victory for the Assad regime, which would shatter any prospects for negotiations. More importantly, enhanced military and intelligence cooperation with Russia in Syria, will amount to conceding that Russia is the main power broker in Syria and not the U.S. and its allies. Such collaboration will accede to Moscow’s long demand for such military to military cooperation, which will undermine Washington’s efforts to isolate Russia and its military after its seizure of Crimea. Such military and intelligence cooperation will make the U.S. for all intents and purposes an accomplice in Russia’s war on the Syrian people, and in its exploitation of the Syrian refugee crisis that is increasing the pressure on Europe’s institutions and societies.

The fierce urgency of now

During the 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr spoke of “the fierce urgency of now.” The impatient and passionate civil right leader was highlighting the need for, “vigorous and positive action”. One would wish for President Obama to have borrowed King’s words, and more importantly his passion and conviction and applied them to the Syrian tragedy. Unless The United States, the European Union and most of Syria’s neighbors move quickly and in a concerted way to make it clear and painful for Assad, Moscow and Tehran that their predations in Syria will be costly, Syria’s bleeding will continue and the flow of refugees to Europe will remain unabated. Already the EU (because of Syria, and the other conflicts in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the migrants from Africa) is facing its most dangerous crisis since its inception. The recent Brexit referendum in Britain and the possibility of similar referenda with similar results could spell doom for the Union, and present the U.S. with a serious economic and security challenge.

It is not too late to attempt to challenge the axis of Russia, Iran and Assad in Syria. For five years serious diplomats, military officers and experts proposed a variety of options to help the Syrians help themselves to get rid of Assad: safe zones, for displaced Syrians under the protection of air power provided by the U.S. and regional states, enhanced military training and equipping moderate opposition groups, limited and specific deployments of special forces from the U.S. and European and Arab allies, to defeat ISIS in Syria and turn the liberated areas to the Syrian opposition groups to work with Arab forces as stabilization force. Such a relatively small Western-Arab force can intervene in Syria without the approval of the Security Council, as was the intervention in Kosovo.

It is important to keep reminding people that Syria, is our collective shame in the twenty first century, that it gave the lie to the cry of “never again”. During the Nazi war of extermination against European Jewry, a relatively small enlightened community that distinguished itself by its tremendous contribution to European civilization, most of the horrific deed was done in relative darkness, although some Western leaders were aware that unspeakable evil was let loose; Syria’s evil on the other hand is operating in high noon, and we see it live on video, bloody blow after bloody blow. Let’s make people inconvenient once again: Half a million people died in Syria, many of them civilians with a frightening percentage of children. Forty five percent of Syrians have been displaced.

The population has already shrunk by 21 percent, with 7 million internally displaced and almost 5 million refugees living in squalid camps in neighboring countries or roaming the highways and byways of Europe seeking shelter and a home. The Syrian refugees in Lebanon and to a lesser extent in Jordan are subjected to abuse and exploitation, they suffer from malnutrition, and many young refugees are deprived of basic schooling, some girls and women are subjected to sexual abuse and sexual slavery. Arranged or forced marriages of teenage girls is rising. And then there is the growing phenomenon of many young teenage Syrians, particularly girls turning to suicide as a way out of their private hell. In 2014 one UN study found that 41 percent of Syrian youths in Lebanon have harbored thoughts of committing suicide.

A decade or two from now, many of these refugees, who may never go back to their homes, and some of them will never shed that status; will look back in anger at those who turned them refugees and those who exploited them and that would be enough to harden their hearts. And when they look ahead, they would do so in anger too, for they may see nothing but quiet and not so quiet lives of desperation.

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

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