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Michael Young

America idle

The dangers of Obama’s lethargy toward Syria

President Barack Obama. (AFP/Saul Loeb)

A few months ago I was in Washington at a roundtable session to discuss American policy toward Syria. I argued that President Barack Obama would soon have to alter his approach there in order to be consistent with the one he had adopted in Iraq.

The argument went something like this. The Americans have affirmed that the only way to defeat ISIS is to reintegrate Iraqi Sunnis into the political and military life of their country, and in that way give them a stake in combating ISIS. The same rationale must therefore apply to Syria. Just as the Obama administration followed this reasoning by helping to remove the sectarian and divisive Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki from office in Iraq, so too must it do so with President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The people in the room, most of them well informed on the mood in the Washington power structure, listened politely. Then virtually all expressed doubts that Obama would do anything about Syria. Now, several months into the American military campaign against ISIS, it is becoming evident that they were right. The administration has no intention of being consistent.

On the contrary, increasingly it is looking as if the administration quietly regards the Assad regime, and with it the Iranians, as allies in the fight against ISIS. If there were any doubts, they were significantly dispelled in November, when The Wall Street Journal revealed that Obama had sent a letter to the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The contents of the letter have not been made public, but a person briefed on it told the Journal, “It states that the U.S.’s military operations inside Syria aren’t targeted at Mr. Assad or his security forces.”

Many interpreted this as implicit recognition by Obama of Iranian interests in Syria. In an article last September I had speculated that the anti-ISIS campaign could lead to Assad’s removal from power. In retrospect, I see that precisely the opposite has become true. 

The Obama administration fears that a collapse of the Assad regime would only create a vacuum that the jihadists alone could fill. This is hardly unrealistic, now that the so-called “moderate rebels” the US has promised to assist have turned into a figment of the administration’s imagination.

But there are also problems with this conclusion. For starters, it assumes the Assad regime will necessarily survive. Yet the reality is that the regime is weakening and has been unable to win decisive encounters, with or without its Hezbollah allies. It is also having trouble conscripting soldiers and has resorted to dragooning young men, even from the Alawite minority.

When Alawites are no longer willing to fight for an Alawite-led regime, you know things have reached a crisis stage. Worse, Assad’s main backers, Iran and Russia, are facing much more severe economic pressures due to the decline in oil prices. Given reports that Syria’s economy is in a tailspin, with subsidies having been cut, at one stage something has to give.

Some are suggesting Russia already may be playing hardball. A Russian diplomatic source was quoted by Al-Monitor as saying that when a high-level Syrian economic delegation visited Moscow in October and requested a $3 billion loan or line of credit, the Russians refused. While this could have been leverage to force Assad to go along with a Russian diplomatic initiative to resolve the Syrian crisis, it was also an implicit admission that Moscow’s ability to finance Assad’s war effort is limited.

Iran is Syria’s greater funder, but it is no less vulnerable to the collapse in oil prices. While there are no indications that its leadership has changed its attitude toward defending Assad, there are signs of division in Tehran over what to do about Syria.

For example, in November, Mohammed Ali Sobhani, an advisor to the Foreign Ministry and a former ambassador to Lebanon, was particularly critical of the Assad regime. “Had the government calmed people and played its role, we would not have faced the current political and sectarian [conflict] in Syria,” Sobhani told Nameh News. That is, evidently, not the position of Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards, but that Sobhani felt he could make such a devastating comment publicly suggests the debate in Tehran over Syria is ongoing, and escalating.

So, can Obama be certain that Assad is solidly in place? And if he is not, is Washington ready to face the repercussions of the Syria regime’s sudden downfall? Were the jihadists to take over Damascus, the fall of Mosul would pale in comparison.

That is precisely why Obama has no real choice but to formulate a comprehensive strategy for Syria. If it involves backing a diplomatic initiative, in conjunction with Russia and the United Nations, so be it. If it involves working with Turkey to create a no-fly zone, and use it to ultimately overthrow Assad, better still. But doing nothing while remaining completely absent from all diplomatic initiatives is the worst possible alternative.

There is a big difference between avoiding the conflict in Syria and refusing to formulate a credible approach to Syria. The first is perhaps understandable; the second is utterly reckless. Obama’s astonishing lethargy until now has made a bad situation worse. It’s time for this most futile of presidents to wake up.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling

Obama's lethargy on Syria until now has made a bad situation worse. (AFP/Saul Loeb)

Obama’s astonishing lethargy until now has made a bad situation worse.

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Your analogy between Iraq and Syria has one big hole: Removing the divisive Al-Maliki was fine because he could be replaced - and indeed he was - by another Shiite. There is no dispute on this matter within Iraq. The only threat to Iraq is Kurdish separatism which seems to have become permanent, and the Sunni uprising represented by Daesh. In Syria, replacing BAshar Assad is not an exercise of democracy. Getting rid of Assad means putting in power a Sunni government, and not another Alawi. The stakes are far more dangerous because, more so than in Iraq in fact, Syria has been an artificial country since its inception as an amalgam of widely different desert cities hailing from different historical backgrounds an glued together by a dubious claim of arabism as a shared ideology. As Beiruti clearly argued in his comment, Syria should no longer be considered a country that can reattach its limbs together. A Alawite-Christian-Shiite east, a non-Arab Kurdish, Turkish, Assyrian north, a Druse south, and the expanse of the Sunni remnant from Damascus to the Iraqi border. Mr. Young, haven't you yet tired of trying to convince us that Obama in the twilight of his two terms will make a U turn on his Syria policy?

    January 4, 2015

  • Beiruti

    Syria is partitioned and it will not be put back together. The Eastern provinces around Raqqa and Deir ez Zor will not be coming back to the Syria that existed before March 15, 2011. The north eastern provinces will probably be absorbed into the Kurdish statelet that is taking shape in Iraq. Syria along the Daraa-Damascus-Homs-Idlib axis and west to Latakia and Tartous will remain with the Alawite/Druze/Christian/Shia majority as a political entity over which a reform minded post-Assad government can be formed. Of course, the bigger issue for the US is not western Syria, but eastern Syria which adjoins Anbar in Iraq's east. This is Dae3g territory and it has oil which means a source of income to fuel Dae3g and strategic depth for it to maintain operations in Iraq around Baghdad where the more serious oil reserves exist and are threatened by the Dae3g phenomenon. If we are to approach the Syria file with any kind of coherence, I think we first must discard the present boundaries for Syria as they are no longer operative. To base policy on the assumption that they are is to have a non-factual basis for policy. To score policy for success or failure on whether the antebellum boundaries are restored is to set a bar that will not be attained.

    January 2, 2015