We have steadily found our way onto the wrong side of almost every issue of importance in the Middle East. Some are the result of our inability to work our way out of the mess that George Bush placed us in. Some are the result of rough spots Obama has encountered in the transition to his objectives. A few are the result of wrong choices, and our refusal to acknowledge such, back up if necessary, and change direction. Syria is an unfortunate example.
Obama inherited a difficult situation in Syria. Diplomatic relations were broken off in 1967, and were never restored. Informal relations deteriorated seriously under George Bush, and since the end of the Iraq war had remained rocky because of Syria’s poor human rights issues. This was the situation when Obama stepped into office. When civil war broke out in 2011, the United States attempted to remain aloof, but for some reason felt it had to express its dissatisfaction with the president of Syria, Bashar al Assad, by declaring that he had to go. This has proved to be a mistake. Since the United States had no major backers in the declaration against Assad, and no intention of taking unilateral action to enforce its wish, Assad has been able to simply ignore the threat without consequence.
This left us with no place at the table in the negotiations for the destruction of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons. Obama waffled when news of Syria’s WMD first exploded on the world scene. He indicated that the United States would intervene with force, and at least hinted about troops being committed. But then he backed off, and said – in the peculiar double negative of government speak -- that military intervention was “not unavoidable.”
This allowed Russia to seize the initiative and broker an impressive concession before the United Nations. The United States was moved further out of the picture. Then, in mid-2015, Russia announced that it was joining with Iran to bring immediate military assistance to Syria in the form of weaponry, aircraft support, and technical assistance, in order to allow Syria to effectively fight and defeat I.S.I.S.
Vladimir Putin very carefully threads the needle in expressing his support for Syria. He explains that Russia supports the “legitimate government” of Syria and supports Bashar al Assad as the head of that government. Putin says he would urge Assad to “work with healthy opposition on political reforms,” and that Russia is “ready to work” towards a “path of political transition.” (Al Jazeera, June 2015)
Deconstructing this double talk, it seems Putin would not object if Assad was to step down, as long this was the will of the Syrian people and not pressure from without. Furthermore, one might think that Putin believes Russia is well placed to help in this endeavor, should the opportunity arise.
We, on the other hand, have increasingly found ourselves on the wrong side of critical events. We declined to support Syria because of the inhumane acts of al Assad. We declined to support the revolutionary overthrow, because we could not determine if the rebel groups were radical jihadists. Now, with the sudden appearance of the Islamic States and its horrific intentions, we felt compelled to face the lesser of two evils and began to funnel some support to others of the Syrian insurgents, such as al Nusra and related entities. We have justified this by maintaining that our support is primarily for their efforts to oppose I.S.I.S.
The results so far have been far less than satisfactory. An example of what we achieve by insisting on running everything ourselves, is a program the Pentagon just shut down. It was intended to recruit and train up to 15,000 Syrian rebels to fight exclusively against I.S.I.S. After one year in operation, and close to $500 million spent on the effort, the program had recruited and trained only five individuals. Five. Defense Secretary Carter announced that the program was being closed down, and acknowledged that it was a total failure.
Not to waste any low hanging fruit, Vladimir Putin promptly announced that the $500 million should have been given to him to use in Russia’s efforts to fight I.S.I.S; he would not have wasted the money, he said, as his programs were far more successful. Then, perhaps to rub it in, he then suggested that Central Command begin to share its intelligence with the Russian units. So far, this has been met with a flat rejection, and stony silence to any entreaties to future discussion of areas of potential cooperation.
Under these circumstances, and as abhorrent as the thought may appear to be at first blush, there is good reason for us to admit our error and reverse course in Syria. Attempting to bring about both the fall of Assad and the defeat of I.S.I.S. through nothing more than tactical support of the ill organized forces of al Nusra, without committing U.S. troops on the ground in the effort, is destined to failure. This is the obvious if difficult, hard lesson of Iraq and Libya. Just deposing Assad by revolution, if such were possible, without defeating I.S.I.S. would assuredly concede the entire region to the new caliphate. And committing U.S. ground forces to any part of the effort must continue to be totally unacceptable. As distasteful as it may appear, the successful course on this aspect of the Middle East is increasingly obvious.
We should hold our nose, cross our fingers, and accept Putin’s invitation to join forces with Russia.