“We need to get to the negotiation,” Secretary of State John Kerry said of efforts to convince Syria’s Bashar Assad to step down. “That’s what we’re looking for, and we hope Russia and Iran, [and] other countries with influence, will help to bring that about, because that’s what’s preventing this crisis from ending.”
Oh my. Kerry’s comments over the weekend from London, where he met with British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond over Europe’s refugee crisis, help explain why President Barack Obama’s policy toward Syria has now collapsed under the weight of its misguided rationale, naive goals and bungling execution.
That policy, which dates back to the “Arab Spring” protests of March 2011 against Assad’s rule, has helped generate all of the following: Syria’s humanitarian horror that has left nearly half of its pre-war population of 22 million either gone or uprooted internally; a refugee crisis that’s plaguing the region and Europe; America’s declining influence in the Middle East; and Russia’s return to regional prominence.
In his foreign policy as a whole, Obama has sought to eschew military force for diplomacy, reset U.S.-Russian relations, reduce America’s footprint in the Middle East, and nourish warmer ties to longstanding U.S. adversaries in Tehran and Damascus in an effort to rebalance U.S. regional interests.
That helps explain why he was reluctant to respond forcefully when Assad began to slaughter his own people, rejecting the advice of top defense aides and congressional allies to arm moderate rebel forces and establish safe havens along Syria’s borders for its people. Instead, he called on Assad to leave and pursued a global diplomatic solution to Syria’s brutal civil war, and he sought help from Assad’s long-time patrons in Moscow and Tehran to accomplish both goals.
Committed to – if not blinded by – Obama’s overall approach to foreign policy, both he and Kerry seemed stunned when diplomacy fails, adversaries in Moscow and Tehran don’t share U.S. goals for a more peaceful region, and, consequently, on-the-ground problems like Syria’s civil war grow worse.
Why Obama and Kerry think that Russia or Iran would ever abandon Assad in the interest of regional peace remains a mystery. Russia has strongly supported Syria since the days when Assad’s father, Hafez, exerted great influence over the region, while Iran has worked closely with Syria to sponsor regional terrorism.
Nothing better illustrates Obama’s failed approach to Syria, and his misguided approach to foreign policy writ large, than his outreach to Russia’s authoritarian president, Vladimir Putin.
For years, Obama has sought better relations with Putin by offering him concessions and largely appeasing his bad behavior: abandoning a missile shield for Poland and the Czech Republic that Putin opposed, accepting his annexing of Crimea, imposing only limited sanctions in response to his aggression against Ukraine, and largely looking away as he threatened the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
Obama even welcomed Russia back to the Middle East – a region the United States has dominated since Egypt abandoned the Soviet Union for the U.S. in the 1970s – and he let Putin devise a scheme through which Obama abandoned plans to punish Assad militarily for crossing his red line on chemical weapons usage, in exchange for Syria shipping its chemical weapons out of the country. That Assad didn’t relinquish all of them and has since used chemical weapons again attracted no tangible response from Washington.
Nevertheless, U.S. officials seem startled by Putin’s recent military build-up in Syria, which includes surface-to-air missiles, an SA-22 air defense system and a prefabricated building at a base near Latakia that can house 2,000 advisers and personnel. They express hope that, in pouring weapons and military personnel into Syria, Putin wants to help America fight the Islamic State group, but they’re also acknowledging the far likelier possibility that he wants to ensure that Assad retains power.
Though troubled by the development, Washington responded to Putin’s provocation by, again, appeasing rather than confronting him. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter reached out to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to reduce chances of an accidental U.S.-Russian military clash, marking the return of U.S.-Russia military cooperation that Washington suspended 18 months ago due to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Putin in Moscow this week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will do so later this week, and such other regional leaders as Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have done the same in recent weeks.
In essence, Middle East leaders are detecting America’s regional decline and Moscow’s rise – and planning accordingly.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.