This is the time of the assassins in the Middle East. This is the time of the great disruption and the epic unwinding of Syria and Iraq; and for some this is the time that precedes the apocalypse. This is the time of the sectarian avengers who sprouted from a land soaked in the blood of generations of true and fake Sunni and Shiite believers. This is the time of reluctant warriors from the West, and new Crusaders coming this time, from the East, and their potential violent encounter could doom the region and beyond. This is the time of ultraviolence and swift death meted out by the barrel bombs and field artillery of the usurpers of power in the once glorious cities of Damascus and Baghdad, and by the swords of the ‘Islamic State’, ISIS, and by the bombs and missiles fired by the warplanes of foreign powers in the crowded skies of Syria and Iraq.
The unraveling of the state system in some parts of the Middle East, the rise of violent non-state actors beholden to no legitimate authority, the deepening of sectarian schisms, the absence of legitimate accountable institutions, and the desertification of cultural life are made worse by autocratic and despotic local and regional rulers, and a dearth of leadership in nearby Europe.
President Obama’s habit of harping on about America’s limits of power gives the clear impression that his America is no longer willing to be bold.Hisham Melhem
In recent years, American leadership in the Middle East and beyond had oscillated between hubris, overreach and the naïve optimism of George W. Bush and the pretend realism, ineptitude and haplessness of the Barack Obama years. On Syria and to a lesser extent Iraq, Obama’s leadership and pronouncements have been characterized by contradictory approaches, moral vacuity, weakness and downright mendacity. Russia’s military intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime brought to the fore the leadership style of President Vladimir Putin; intelligent, bold and deceitful. Niccoló Machiavelli would be proud. A great prince or ruler, Machiavelli tells us, is cold and unsentimental, who understands the limits of power and its effective and often ruthless application. President Obama’s habit of harping on about America’s limits of power – even when there is no reason for such confessions – gives the clear impression that his America is no longer capable of achieving great successes on its own, or is no longer willing to be bold, and yes, occasionally pay the price of strong leadership if the objectives warrant it.
Doomed to perdition?
Russia’s brazen military expedition in Syria, and the stunning passivity of the Obama administration could only lead to prolonging the agony of the Syrian people and widening the circle of violence. More Syrians will perish in the conflict.
Regional powers like Iran are providing arms, advisors and members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps to support the Assad regime on the battlefield, along with auxiliary Shiite militias from Lebanon and Iraq. Other regional powers, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are actively supporting myriad Syrian opposition groups. The marauders of ISIS continue their killings and destruction. The genocide is consuming the people of Syria and their cultural heritage. The terrorists of ISIS pillage villages and towns raping young girls and destroying exquisite pre-Islamic temples and the first Christian churches and monasteries. Syria is dying slowly, and it seems as if the whole world is participating in its ritualistic killing.
No sooner was the first Russian bombardment over, the world realized what many skeptics have feared: The majority of Russia’s attacks were carried out against forces fighting the Assad regime, and not against ISIS.Hisham Melhem
No sooner was the first Russian bombardment over, the world realized what many skeptics have feared: Putin’s real objectives in Syria include attacking the Islamist and nationalist groups in the Idlib region, which had forced Assad’s military to withdraw. The majority of Russia’s attacks were carried out against forces fighting the Assad regime, and not against ISIS. In fact one could see an unwritten collusion between the Russians and ISIS. While the Russian air force was bombing anti-Assad units in the north, ISIS intensified its attacks against the anti-Assad opposition groups in the environs of Aleppo. This was surely one of Putin’s tactical intended consequences.
Machiavelli for beginners
Watching the president and his advisors reacting lackadaisically to Putin’s calculated moves, one is tempted to sending them free copies of Machiavelli’s books, particularly The Prince, in the hope that they would learn something about power, cunning and leadership. From the moment the Russian military buildup started in early September, the Obama administration began to engage in wishful thinking and delusions – and the guessing game commenced. The Obama administration wanted to learn about Russia’s “real intentions” from the Russian themselves, as if Putin did not deceive them throughout last summer when he “assured” Secretary of State John Kerry that Russia was “tired of Assad” and was willing to revive the peace negotiations. It was during those days that the Russian and Iranian high commands were coordinating their military moves in Syria.
Faced with Putin’s new facts on the ground and his humiliating dismissiveness of the ‘deep concerns’ of the Obama administration, the President’s advisors sharpened their pleas with the Russians not to willfully violate Turkey’s airspace, and urging Moscow to seriously discuss with the U.S. technical means to avoid military incidents in the Syrian skies. The President and his men were in denial when they tried to minimize the buildup by saying Russia has had a long military relationship with Syria, that the naval base at Tartus was built during the Soviet era, and that Putin’s move reflected the military weakness of his ally Assad. Then we were told that the Russian intervention will backfire, that it will amount to a “tragic mistake” that will galvanize domestic and international resentment, or that very soon Russia “will begin to suffer from casualties.” All along the U.S. administration kept assuring the Russians that they have a place in the anti-ISIS international coalition.
Once again the Obama administration found itself forced to review and amend its policies and programs regarding the Syrian opposition. The embarrassing failure of the train-and-equip program, which produced a handful of fighters in almost a year and a budget of $500 million, was on Friday put on “operational pause”. A new, less ambitious plan will focus on training leaders of opposition units, arming them and providing them with communications gear so that they can identify ISIS targets that the U.S. Air Force will destroy. This is the third such adjustment, and there is no serious indication that the new program will fare better than the previous ones.
Clearly the U.S. administration is flailing in its attempts to respond to Putin’s challenge, and over the collapse of its train-and-equip program.Hisham Melhem
The new program will likely fail, because there is no genuine commitment on the part of President Obama to see the Syrian opposition develop into a serious threat to the Assad regime. Clearly the U.S. administration is flailing in its attempts to respond to Putin’s challenge, and over the collapse of its train-and-equip program. It was reported that the President’s men are reviving the idea of local ceasefires as a way to de-escalate the violence and suffering, in the absence of a political process. These ceasefires have been tried with very limited success, and their adoption means a resignation to Assad remaining in power indefinitely.
Every combatant has a strategy – with the exception of the United States. A lot has been written about Russia’s real goals in Syria. Putin is reasserting Russia’s influence in the Middle East in collaboration with Syria, Iran and Iraq – and doing so at the expense of Washington. He is already a political and military player in Syria and will be crucial for any outcome to the conflict. Iraq is thinking of inviting the Russian Air Force to help in the war against ISIS. Egypt, another erstwhile ally of the United States, has supported Russia’s military intervention in Syria wholeheartedly. Iran has a clear strategy: It wants to protect its extensive interests in Syria and by extension Lebanon. Iran will continue to invest in the Shiite communities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and is willing to participate directly and through its proxies to defend these interests. Even a weak Assad has a strategy: to remain in power regardless of his status as a vassal. Russia’s higher profile could help Assad tactically, since it could lessen his total dependence on the Iranians. And of course, the pretend Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has a strategy: To wallow in so much nihilistic violence, to draw more foreign fighters and usher in the apocalyptic battle of end times in the town of Dabiq, northern Syria.
Last week President Obama was dismissive of all those former senior officials who worked with him in his first term, and of the Syrian scholars and opposition leaders who over the years proposed options that differ from his own policy, as “half-baked ideas” and “mumbo-jumbo”. The tragic reality is that everything President Obama pursued in Syria was “half-baked” and sounded like “mumbo-jumbo”. Denigrating his critics, who proposed realistic plans for safe zones or no-fly zones, and working with opposition groups already battling ISIS, will not alter the fact that the price of his dithering and inaction will be borne by the peoples of the region.
The immovable object
Syria will continue to bleed and die slowly, in a region bereft of hope and salvation, while hurtling itself with breakneck speed towards the abyss.Hisham Melhem
During the presidency of Barack Obama, the Middle East has undergone a great unraveling of epic proportions. The leaders of countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen led their societies to mass slaughter, and the once-great powers either fanned the flames, or were unwilling or unable to stop the conflagration. In the case of President Obama, it shall be written that he failed to honor his promises to the Syrians, or to act on his threats. President Obama endured setbacks in Syria, was subjected to fierce criticism because of his inaction which contributed to that country’s torment, and he is still suffering from Putin’s humiliations. But Obama has developed an impenetrable immune system against any moral appeal to his higher angels. On Syria Obama is like an immovable object. His willful blindness is there to see in all of its scarred nakedness. Syria will continue to bleed and die slowly, in a region bereft of hope and salvation, while hurtling itself with breakneck speed towards the abyss. This is indeed the time of the assassins.
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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