A broken Syria is Obama’s legacy
As the Obama prepares his exit, it is fair to ask whether he will let the complete destruction of Syria become a reality. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)
Ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, instituting a pivot to Asia and embarking on a new beginning with the Muslim world were some of American President Barack Obama’s key objectives when he assumed office in January 2009.
Washington pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2011 and initiated a gradual drawdown in Afghanistan, the completion of which remains a key goal before Obama leaves office less than a year from now.
Yet, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan is free of mayhem and destruction as US forces are still engaged in ongoing conflicts in both countries.
Moreover, even if developments involving China and North Korea necessitated a military pivot to Asia, the move was placed in abeyance on account of drastic changes in the Middle East that, for all practical purposes, required the kind of presence that no chief executive could deny.
During his term, Obama dealt with Iran, organised a temporary agreement over its putative nuclear programme, rehabilitated Tehran for lucrative purposes and cajoled Arab Gulf partners to trust its well-meaning intentions. Iran played along, liberated itself from some of the sanctions that had crippled its economy, signed fresh contracts with France and Germany, asked to be paid in euros instead of US dollars for its oil exports, threatened to walk away from the nuclear accord it presumably signed with good intentions after Washington imposed fresh sanctions over updated ballistic missile programmes and insisted that the US had “no legal or moral legitimacy” to behave in the way it did. It was unclear whether Obama heard these latest insults against the “Great Satan”, aware that what mattered was his “legacy”, not necessarily US national security interests.
Iran was thus placed in the win column for myopic officials who divided the world in neat categorisations, oblivious to other forces that looked for strategic errors, precisely to take advantage of opportunities presented on silver platters. No one was as good as the master-strategist in the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who read Obama’s playbook quite well and understood how to goad the American.
Putin operated on steady principles — to fragment the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) and weaken the European Union — which were his main strategic objectives. All other moves were meant to serve these two pivotal aims, including whatever assistance Moscow extended to Beijing and New Delhi, both of which were ostensibly part of the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) economic association that stood as an alternative to US-led institutions.
Where Putin took a firmer stand was in Syria, of course, even if amateurish assessments concluded that Moscow would quickly be bogged down there and pay a heavy price. Russia may still suffer a huge defeat for its adventure, though no one can ignore that it may also score a decisive military victory over the short-term. As Natalie Nougayrede wrote in the Guardian a few days ago: “What happens next in Aleppo will shape Europe’s future,” because a defeat of revolutionary forces would only leave the regime and Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in place. There would be no hope for a political settlement that would presumably involve the Syrian opposition since the latter would be destroyed.
Whether Nato countries and leading Muslim powers, which are scheduled to meet in Brussels this week to discuss the deployment of ground forces in Syria, will finally manage to get their act together and respond in kind is now anyone’s guess.
What is known is that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE expressed their readiness to join an international coalition led by the US that, presumably, will lift various sieges and end the intensive bombardments of civilians. Even if a decision is reached to engage, deployments will take time and, of course, will be met with huge criticism from Syria and Damascus’ allies.
Waleed Al Mua’alem, the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, condemned the Nato-led talks, promising to send back all aggressors in “coffins ... whether they [happen to] be Saudis or Turks.”
This was the same Mua’alem who, in 2011, had declared that Syria regarded European Union sanctions as a “war” against Damascus and promised to “forget Europe [was] on the map”. It did not occur to the affable Syrian that Russia was also in Europe and geographically a European power.
Be that as it may, what mattered were the discussions between the 34-strong Islamic coalition formed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in December 2015 and Nato, both of which aimed to fight and defeat “global terrorism”, even if the going would be tough. Of course, much of what will occur next will largely depend on Moscow’s financial abilities though the astute Nougayrede hit the nail on the head when she concluded that Putin “has cynically played [his] pawns” with the skills of a master chess player. The Russian, she affirmed, has “cast himself as a man of order”, even if his preferences “have brought more chaos”. No matter the price.
Consequently, the onus is on Obama in his capacity as the leader of the so-called free world, to lead. As the American president prepares his exit from the White House, it is fair to ask whether he will let the humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo and the complete destruction of Syria become realities. Will he push for more US military disengagements from the Middle East to allow Russia added wiggle room? Will he mimic former US president George W. Bush and hand over Syria and Lebanon to Iran, just like his predecessor presented Iraq on a silver platter?
By Joseph A. Kechichian