How Obama Lost the Mideast to Putin

Vision, strategy, and courage might have prevented the disaster we see today in Syria. But those elements were nowhere to be found.

Jason Reed/Reuters

LONDON — The Middle East is in flames. Just as Iraq was President George W. Bush’s catastrophic legacy, Syria will be Obama’s. Bush’s sins of commission wrought no less chaos than Obama’s sins of omission. If the Stop the War lobby’s primary motive was to avoid civilian casualties, then by any standard they should slither away shamefully into voluntarily redundancy.

By latest human rights accounts, Syria’s five-year civil war has left 470,000 dead. To add to our disgrace, we don’t even know how accurate these figures are because—as if in despair—the United Nations gave up collecting statistics 18 months ago. Syria has spiraled into the biggest humanitarian, political and security challenge of our time. The Cuban Missile crisis of 2016.

Last week in Munich, the “well-meaning but under-powered” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry optimistically announced a temporary ceasefire, leading up to UN-brokered peace talks scheduled for Feb. 25. Onlookers meanwhile, wondered what sort of “cessation of hostilities” allows Russia to continue hostilities, and questioned whether depressing realities on the ground truly reflect Kerry’s sleight of hand.

Those realities are dire. Through a combination of Shia-Islamist sectarianism in Yemen and Lebanon, terrorist intimidation via Hizbollah, and meddling in Iraq and Syria, Iran has succeeded in setting the region alight.

No less a culprit, Saudi Arabia has spent decades funding its own sectarian agenda—Sunni-Wahabi puritanism. As Saudi struggles feverishly to compete against the ayotollahs, Iran’s “Shia crescent” has cast its shadow from Persia through Iraq, deep into the Levant and pierces its way into the Arabian Peninsula via Oman and Yemen. In desperation, the Saudis have threatened to send ground troops into Syria, just as they already did in Bahrain and Yemen.

Turkey—bursting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman delusions of grandeur—is desperate to prevent the triple threat of being overwhelmed by refugees, facing a resurgent hostile Assad regime, and watching as an independent Kurdish region arises on its border. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has warned that Turkey will not hesitate to act military to halt Kurdish ambitions. Already bombing Kurdish strongholds inside Syria, the Turks too are suggesting sending in ground troops to join Saudi Arabia.

Hearing of Turkish and Saudi ground troops, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev responded by threatening “permanent war”. Hypocritically, Russia has already committed her own ground troops, and flies up to 510 combat sorties a week inside Syria from its airbase near Latakia.

Putin is pursuing his aim of dividing Europe, and dividing NATO, by championing the Kurds. As Turkey downed a Russian jet last year, Russia retaliated by amassing her forces on the Turkish border to secure a base in the Syrian Kurdish region. The two countries’ militaries are currently fighting on the ground “mere kilometers from each other” and if a clash occurs NATO could either be unwillingly dragged into war or—to Putin’s delight —lose all credibility as a common defence pact.

Perhaps as a reward for hosting a Russian base, and as a snub to “fickle” American support—which really should have been there from the start, the Kurds of Rojava, an autonomous Kurdish area in northern Syria, have been given their first overseas representative office in Moscow. As well as Rojava, there is the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. The Kurds have risen up and are incredibly unlikely to ever accept Syrian, Iraqi or Turkish rule again, no matter what “cessation of hostilities” Kerry reaches.

This is how it came to be that the region now stands precariously at the cusp of World War III. But so much of this could have been avoided, if President Barack Obama had displayed two qualities in his foreign policy: leadership and strategic vision.

We know he lacked a strategy because, well, he told us so. And there was no moment of more memorable spinelessness than when Syrian President Bashar Assad crossed Obama’s chemical “red line” with impunity.

However which way Obama is remembered for his domestic record, I—and no doubt many other foreign policy pundits—will forever be gritting our teeth at the sheer arrogant indifference he displayed to the unraveling of the Middle East, and the rise of the Russian Bear. Putin stared Obama down; Obama cowered and blinked.

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As in Afghanistan, then in Bosnia, and now in Syria, the story of how entire generations came to be radicalized is incomplete without considering the role of Russian aggression.

In Afghanistan the Soviets invaded—only to provide the perfect context for a nascent al Qaeda. In Bosnia, Russia supplied the Serbs while the International Community stood by its arms embargo—paving the way for the Bosnian genocide that radicalized an entire generation of European Muslims. And now in Syria, Putin props up his puppet Assad while destroying entire Syrian cities— and completely ignoring ISIS-held areas. Meanwhile, the Far-Left gleefully denounce lackadaisical American “colonialism” from Russian state television channels or pontificate over American ills, as asylum seekers in Moscow.

The consequences of Obama’s stunning lack of vision will be felt in Europe, too, in more ways than one. As Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kurds, Turkey, Russia and various jihadist terrorist factions such as ISIS and al Qaeda fight over the Middle-Eastern jewel, half of Syria’s population has become displaced. Hundreds of thousands are fleeing to Europe, and the resulting cultural civil strife this has sparked will only bolster those—like Putin—who seek to break up the European Union.

Naivety is perhaps too generous a word for Merkel’s open door immigration policy. It is as if she was oblivious to the forthcoming UK referendum scheduled for June 23rd on the Brexit, or Britain leaving Europe.

It’s too late for Obama now, but not for the next American president to recoil from this record of failure. American leadership and strategic vision should, first and foremost, have recognized that the intervention pendulum has swung too far the other way, to pacifism. A global power vacuum, by definition, would soon be filled by another power. Enter Russia.

American leadership would have called Putin’s bluff over that “red line,” and recognized that Putin’s position in Moscow was weaker than it looked. American leadership would have recognized that the recent center-left trend towards isolationism— far from being true to the principles of liberal internationalism— has always been symptomatic of parochial conservative populism. This is why it eventually gave way to Donald Trump.

American strategy would have exploited the opportunity of talks with Iran to force a compromise over Assad. American strategy would have exploited the Egyptian, Saudi and Israeli common foes of Iran and Assad, to unify them instead around a deal over Palestine. American strategy would have long ago supported an independent Kurdish state before Russia began to seize that opportunity, too. A Kurdish state would have been the Middle East’s only secular, democratic Muslim-majority country, and could have acted as a torchlight for the entire region against insurgent Islamism.

Instead, none of this happened. But Obama did receive a Nobel Peace Prize. Congratulations, Mr. President.