Putin Shows Obama How Mideast Intervention Is Done

While the media ponders the U.S. president's foreign policy legacy, the Russian leader reveals a doctrine of his own; meanwhile, unprecedented pessimism prevails on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with regard to the terror wave.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin, March 17, 2016.
Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin, March 17, 2016. Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

In The Atlantic, and then throughout the American media, there has been a fascinating discussion on the Obama Doctrine, the U.S. president’s foreign policy legacy. A mammoth article in The Atlantic – by a journalist particularly close to the president, Jeffrey Goldberg – provides surprising detail (sometimes with direct quotes) on Barack Obama’s insights after more than seven years in the White House, more than five of them in the shadow of the  turmoil in the Middle East.

Obama, in short, recognizes the limits of American diplomatic and military power in the Middle East, questions the likelihood that the Arabs will extricate themselves from their plight, and is skeptical, bordering on cynical, regarding the advice he receives from Washington’s myriad of Middle East and foreign policy experts.

The president, according to Goldberg, is certain of the righteousness of his foreign policy in our region. The Middle East is less important to U.S. interests than it was in the past, Washington can do little to alter the misery, and any direct commitment will cost soldiers’ lives while eroding both its power and image abroad. Obama sounds perfectly comfortable with his decision not to attack the Assad regime in the summer of 2013, despite his commitment to respond to the Syrian tyrant’s use of chemical weapons.

Goldberg devotes relatively little space to the Iranian nuclear agreement, which the president considers one of his greatest achievements. But it’s clear Obama views the deal as a way to reduce the risk of another war and to ensure a balance between the Shi’ite power and its main Sunni rival, Saudi Arabia.

The story has elicited a wave of responses and analyses. Critics like The Washington Post have questioned his conclusions. In their view, the Middle East is still important, the United States can help, and its inaction there is weakening its standing in the international arena.

Amid article after article on the Obama Doctrine, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised the world with a move of his own: the withdrawal of most of his forces from Syria. Like the sending in of the planes and troops at the beginning of September, this move came without warning. After Putin sent in the jets, Obama quickly assessed that Moscow would find itself sunk in the Syrian quagmire – and thus indirectly revealed his reason for eschewing any similar American involvement.

But Putin’s involvement, in response to Assad’s request, changed the direction of the fighting in Syria. It halted the rebels’ advance, won the regime some ground back, and has apparently kept Assad in power.

While so doing, Russia also paved the way to a cease-fire. A reduction of the fighting and a ramping-up of diplomacy could produce an agreement that Russia is aiming for.

This would be a federation (actually, a split into sub-states) that would draw borders around three entities: an area of Alawite control in Damascus and in the center and northwest of the country; a Kurdish area in the northeast; and a large Sunni area in the west where the grip of the Islamic State and the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front is not yet clear. This appears what Putin is aiming for: a stabilization of the situation while reducing Russia’s commitment and risks.

Israel too, as Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot has admitted, was surprised by Russia’s move. By coincidence, the following day President Reuven Rivlin began a visit to Moscow, which seems to have gone well. Rivlin, after consulting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, marked out Israel’s interests in Syria: preventing the entrenchment of Iranian forces in the small enclave that the regime still controls, and at the Golan border. Israel also wants a return of the UN observer force that fled the Golan in the shadow of war.

Overall, a reduction of Russian forces in Syria would be good for Israel; it weakens the Iran-Assad-Hezbollah axis Hezbollah will now have to pay more attention to the Syrian front at the expense of southern Lebanon.

In the Syrian context, especially, Israel is maneuvering well between the powers; this must continue. But remember that the Russian embrace is a bear hug; the Putin regime employs unbridled brutality both at home and abroad. This was demonstrated once again this month in the apparent assassination of a former Russian minister whose relations with the regime soured. He had been found dead in his Washington hotel room last December.

By midweek, the Russian air force said its planes would leave Syria by Saturday, but what happens next is unclear. Theoretically, the planes could also attack Syria from bases in southern Russia, passing through Iranian and Iraqi airspace.

It’s too early to know if the Assad regime can maintain stable defense lines in Syria without Russian air cover. Some rebel groups that have been pummeled by indiscriminate Russian bombing might decide they now have to seize the moment and attack, breaking the cease-fire. Just as Putin didn’t need to build public support in Russia for his decision to send forces to Syria and take them out now, he doesn’t see any need to explain himself in detail.

The entire move smells of “surprise for surprise’s sake” – another volte-face that astonishes both the world and Moscow’s rivals. It’s like the remark attributed to Metternich on Talleyrand’s death: “I wonder what he meant by that.”

A worsening West Bank

Deep pessimism has been palpable on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent weeks, more than over the past decade. The current intifada, led by West Bank youths, is continuing at a limited intensity and isn’t affecting the lives of Israelis and Palestinians as did its two predecessors. But it’s worsening the already negative forecasts of security chiefs on both sides.

IDF troops guard the site where a woman soldier was stabbed and wounded and her 2 Palestinian assailants shot and killed, near the settlement of Ariel, on March 17, 2016. Credit: Associated Press

On the Israeli side, there’s a growing sense that the policy of conflict management espoused by recent governments is nearing its end. The small gestures and limited economic improvements won’t suffice in the long run; the Palestinians want more than cosmetic improvements. And many defense officials believe that the violence’s current intensity – which has cost the lives of 34 Israelis and more than 180 Palestinians in just under six months – is almost a miracle. It will probably get much worse.

A typical example is the Israeli proposal, reported the other day by Haaretz’s Barak Ravid, to drastically curtail the IDF’s arrest operations in Ramallah and Jericho, which are in Area A, the bailiwick of the Palestinian Authority. The PA rejected this proposal, partly due to Netanyahu’s demand that the PA recognize an Israeli right to conduct military operations in Area A in “ticking bomb” scenarios.

PA officials say Israel repeatedly tries to sell them the same bill of goods. Similar discussions were held at the end of the second intifada with the launch of the joint Israeli-Palestinian “Jenin Project” nine years ago. Given the current atmosphere in the West Bank, the PA believes it can’t afford a move that would be perceived as capitulating to Israel on a key issue.

The PA is caught between Israeli military pressure and the young generation leading the clash with Israel. Amid the despair among Palestinian leaders, some officials in Ramallah predict the collapse of the PA in concert with  President Mahmoud Abbas’ physical decline in the coming years. Abbas is about to turn 81. Thus, what until recently has been perceived as an idle threat – the suspension of security collaboration with Israel – is voiced by more officials than Saeb Erekat.

This limited intifada is becoming a long-term fixture, for now not sliding into a wider confrontation because of the PA’s efforts and hesitation among the people of the West Bank, who are not as committed to the struggle as during the previous two intifadas. The new generation, less aware of the damage wrought by Israeli military retaliation and less familiar with the anarchy when the PA’s grip on power vastly weakened in 2002 – is undeterred by confrontation.

From October 1 to around March 13 the defense establishment counted 232 assailants who were killed during an attack or were arrested while attempting one. Their average age was 21; meanwhile, 182 were residents of the West Bank, 44 were from East Jerusalem (some attacks in the city were by West Bank residents), five were Israeli Arabs and one was Sudanese.

Hamas militants in an anti-Israel demonstration in Gaza, February 2016.Credit: Reuters

In the West Bank the intifada youth are depicted as “the upright generation.” In Israel they’re labeled as alienated, defiant and contrarian, with talk of fierce opposition by these young people to the Israeli occupation, the PA and to some extent their parents. This sense of “no future,” often entwined with family tensions, spurs them to embark on attacks that the Israelis have a hard time spotting in advance or stopping as they play out.

Official PA media, which aren’t terribly popular, have tried to restrain incitement to terror. Instead they adhere to a unified narrative: The perpetrators are young people fed up with the occupation, so they’re doing something about it and are often being killed by Israeli overreactions. Missing parts to this version are supplied by Palestinian social media and Hamas’ and Islamic Jihad’s TV stations, which stoke outright incitement to such attacks.

There is a consensus among Israeli security agencies that security coordination with the PA is the best it has ever been. The two sides operate against Hamas teams in the West Bank and against young people hinting at an intention to stab or run over Israelis. The main risk in the violence is an erosion in the PA’s restraining actions and a weakening of the security coordination with Israel. This lies behind the gloomy forecasts for the West Bank.

The economic threat

In Gaza the other day, Hamas buried its 15th victim, at least, after eight tunnel collapses since December. The victim this time was described as a senior operative in Hamas’ military wing. At first, the organization tried to conceal its many “work accidents.” This was no longer possible after seven people died in one tunnel almost two months ago.

Between mid-January and mid-February it seemed Israel and Hamas might slide into another confrontation. The winds of war were blowing in Gaza. Hamas accelerated its tunnel digging, including attack tunnels that apparently reach into Israel. The IDF has striven to locate these tunnels.

Extensive media coverage and visits by officials to Gaza-area communities made Hamas suspect that Israel was planning military moves. In Israel there were concerns that the uncovering of attack tunnels would drive Hamas to use some of them now. In early February Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas official, said in a TV interview that “the tunnels of the resistance reach areas beyond the Gaza Strip.”

Since then it seems Hamas officials have only frightened themselves. The video with Zahar has disappeared from the Internet, and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is spreading calming messages.

A Hamas delegation recently was in Cairo for talks with Egyptian intelligence officials, probably at Saudi Arabia’s urging. But Hamas’ strategic problems remain. Financial aid from Qatar is limited, relations with Egypt are dismal, a real reconciliation with the PA isn’t likely soon, and conditions in Gaza continue to deteriorate.

The threats of war from Gaza have subsided, but the situation on the border remains fragile. The risk of hostilities in the future is still largely a function of Gaza’s deteriorating economy.

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