Letter from Washington: Russia, Syria and America’s feeble response
26 Oct 2015|


For a president who wanted to leave the Middle East behind so that he could focus on other pressing issues—such as the much-publicised ‘rebalancing’ to the Asia–Pacific—Barack Obama wasn’t dealt the best of hands.

However, in the case of Syria, a country which has suffered horrendously for the last four years—over 250,000 people have died, some 4 million have fled the country and over 7 million are internally displaced—Washington has displayed an incredible lack of leadership and resolve, compounded with the execution of poor policy.

The turning point in Washington’s approach to the Syrian problem was President Obama’s failure to stand by its ‘red line’ when Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own population last year. Empty threats simply encourage bullies. And Russia’s Putin rose to the occasion.

Notwithstanding the fact that President Obama declared in his address to the UN last month that the use of force to resolve international disputes was passé, President Putin, smelling weakness and an opportunity to reassert himself on the international scene, has used naked military force to protect Russia’s interests in Syria.

This has been a profound game-changer which will significantly delay a political resolution of the Syrian crisis. But more importantly, Washington’s lack of appropriate response to this brute Russian action will further undermine the US’ credibility as a superpower in the Middle East and beyond.

While Putin’s military move into Syria could become Russia’s quagmire, as the Obama administration has already predicted, in the short-term, this is a big win for Russia.

First, by militarily dealing himself into the Syrian theatre, Putin has broken his international isolation, following his on-going Ukraine adventure and annexation of Crimea. The international community will have no choice but have to take into account his demands at the negotiating table whenever that time comes.

Second, Russia’s sudden military entry into Syria confirms, along with its participation in the P5 + 1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, that Moscow has returned to the Middle East after a long absence. In addition to being allied with Iran, Russia is flirting with Egypt, warming up to Iraq and sending feelers to Saudi Arabia.

Third, Putin’s deployment of assets confirms that Russia won’t hesitate to commit military resources to protect its interests, notably the survival of the Assad regime.

From Moscow’s point of view this is critical because the Baath government in Damascus, with which it has had a strategic relationship for well over 40 years, ensures that the naval facility at Tartus, Moscow’s only toe hold in the Mediterranean, remains in friendly hands. Moreover, an Assad regime hardens somewhat Caucasia, Russia’s soft underbelly and the gateway to its restive Muslim-majority region in the south. Reportedly, hundreds of Chechens have already joined the Islamic State (IS) as have almost two thousand Russians.

The direct consequence of this Russian insertion of military assets has been to rescue the Assad regime from near collapse. And although Russia asserted that its direct involvement in the conflict was to fight IS, no one has bought this lie, especially after it became obvious that the overwhelming bombing targets by the Russian air force have been the anti-Assad militias and US-armed rebel strongholds in the west of the country and not IS in the east. Accordingly, IS has made gains where the anti-Assad forces have been degraded.

President Obama’s response to Russia’s insertion into Syria was to state on 60 Minutes that the US wouldn’t change its current policy. Secretary of State Kerry even suggested that ‘meaningful’ Russian help could contribute to a political solution. Unfortunately, this Russian intervention comes in the wake of the $500 million fiasco of trying to build up a new rebel force of some 5,000 ‘moderate’ fighters who would fight IS. After almost one year, only a handful had been trained. Accordingly, the program has quietly been shelved in favour of arming existing Kurdish and Arab forces.

Of course, the Obama administration’s approach to Syria has been grist for his political opponents’ mill—Republicans and Democrats. The Republicans have been particularly scathing of Obama’s approach to the issue, with Senator McCain calling the administration’s strategy an ‘abject failure’.

Even Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ most likely nominee for the 2016 presidential race, has been critical of her former boss, advocating the establishment of safe havens and no fly zones. This position is supported by a number of influential opinion-makers, including Condoleezza Rice, former President Bush’s Secretary of State, and Robert Gates, who served both presidents Bush and Obama as Secretary of Defense.

President Obama rejects these proposals completely. This is a mistake for four reasons.

First, those safe havens would provide protection to hundreds of thousands of people now suffering and in danger in Syria. Second, it would help stem the flow of refugees escaping Syria and overwhelming Europe’s capacity to deal with this human tragedy. Third, it would send a message to Putin that he won’t set the agenda in Syria.

Finally, it would send a message to Washington’s allies and friends around the world, especially in the Asia–Pacific region, that they can count on the US, if and when the going gets tough. Rest assured that other bullies lurking in that neighbourhood are no doubt also watching Washington’s moves very closely indeed.