Obama's 'Do Nothing' Policy on Syria Finds Few Defenders

Russia’s rise, America’s inaction and ISIS’ woes were the focus of talks at a U.S.–Israel strategy session in Tel Aviv.

Syrian man rides his bike along a street damaged by shelling in the neighbourhood of Jobar, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 24, 2016.
AFP

An old tale in Washington goes like this: A senior Administration official encounters a difficult problem and turns for advice to a seasoned lawyer, a behind-the-scenes adviser known for his exorbitant fees. The lawyer listens to the official and says his advice, which he scribbles in a folded note, will cost one hundred thousand dollars. The harried official writes out the check and, upon opening the note later, discovers that it consists of two words: “Do nothing.” After thinking about it, he realizes that this advice was worth the price he paid for it.

This is more or less what happened to U.S. President Barack Obama regarding the Syrian civil war. Obama, who will end eight years in office next January, also believes that the preferred course of action is to do nothing. While his Secretary of State John Kerry continues to issue endless declarations on the situation in Syria, Obama says little and does even less. Nothing good will accrue to the president’s legacy from his dismal record on Syria. Even the shocking revelation that the updated estimate of the number of dead is almost double the previous one, approaching half a million people, was received by the international community with a shrug.

This week was marked by two new declarations, accompanied by target dates. The first related to a cease-fire, initiated by Russia and agreed to by Washington, scheduled to take effect on Friday. The other was an announcement by Syrian President Bashar Assad that new elections would be held in April. One shouldn’t hold one’s breath in anticipation of the fulfilment of either of these announcements. The anonymous people running a bogus Twitter account in the name of President Vladimir Putin got it right in a host of venomous tweets, one of which read “The cease-fire: This is when Russia says it will stop bombing the people it denies it has been bombing.”

The increasing Russian influence, the futility of American policy and the continued dismemberment of the Middle East were the focus of discussions this week at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), affiliated with Tel Aviv University, in the presence of their colleagues from Harvard University’s Belfer Center. The American guests, including former senior officials in Republican and Democrat administrations (some of whom may be returning to Washington next January, depending on election results) also met two members of the Israel Defense Forces General Staff, as well as senior political figures. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not go out of his way to meet them.

That’s a pity since there are still some potholes on the road to defense agreements between Israel and the United States, despite the strong, positive ties that bind them. This week, an extensive aerial defense exercise was conducted by the two countries. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon repeated his praise for the support provided by the Obama administration. However, the details of this assistance over the next decade have not been ironed out, despite the administration’s willingness to increase the amount beyond the annual $3.1 billion given over the last decade. The two sides have not yet agreed on what would constitute an Iranian infringement of the nuclear accord or on how to maintain the monitoring of Iran’s activities.

The American guests, including those who are in awe of Obama’s domestic achievements and those who praise the nuclear deal with Iran, found it difficult to defend his Middle East policies, particularly his hesitation and inaction regarding Syria. Inaction has its price as well, said Israeli commentators. Steps which could have been taken two or three years ago are no longer relevant. Some of the visitors said that the president will not hear of any American military commitment in Syria. He also has no intention of enforcing a no-fly zone along the Syrian-Turkish border. From Washington’s standpoint, the most that can be expected now is the enforcement of a cease-fire, followed by a division of power in Syria, based on areas currently under control by the various parties to the conflict. The Americans have in fact given up on the vision of a united Syria. Their main demand that “Assad must go,” made since the beginning of the war, has been shelved.

Over the last year, Washington has insisted that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria and that only a diplomatic settlement can diminish the fighting. But as political analyst David Sanger wrote recently in the New York Times, the Russian bombing raids and the siege of Aleppo have shown that there is a military option, only it’s a Russian one. Other participants at the Tel Aviv meeting noted that the Russian strategy, which they described as “striking and intimidating,” has yielded results for Putin — this, despite the vast domestic problems Moscow faces, including dire economic conditions and the conflict with the West over Ukraine.

In comparison with other conferences, this week’s meeting focused less on the dangers of ISIS and more on a sober assessment of the complex situation the organization finds itself in, recruiting thousands of new volunteers while losing increasingly large swaths of territory in Syria and particularly Iraq. One participant wondered how ISIS was promoted from its categorization by Obama in 2014 as “a mid-ranking terrorist organization” to become, a year and a half later, the greatest threat facing the United States.

The head of the INSS, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, asked which “black swan” scenarios (ones with very low probability but massive impact) are possible in 2016. The answers offered were diverse, ranging from a collapse of the Saudi royal family to a new civil “Green” revolution in Iran that would endanger the present regime there, as well a war between Israel and Hezbollah. At the end of the meeting, a quote by an Egyptian diplomat reverberated in the air. It related to the borders of Arab states in Asia, many of which were determined 100 years ago in the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France: “These aren’t states – they’re tribes with flags.”