The Russians and the Iranians are gambling that Obama is a weak leader that lacks the ability to make complicated decisions. Events are proving them correct. Those countries that rely on the United States for providing leadership or maintaining regional security should strongly consider alternative strategies.
The Iranians have imported into Syria every one of the proxies they have spent the past 30 years building up. Hezbollah is there. Iraqi Shiite militias are there. Even Yemeni Houthis have shown up, despite the Iranian denials over the past few years that the Houthis are being sponsored by Iran. Of course the Iranians already have advisers on the ground training Alawite militias. On the other hand, the Russians have been supplying Assad with weapons and diplomatic support for the past two years. First they were relatively quiet about it, but gradually the fog has disappeared and the Russians are now quiet explicit in their support of the continued rule by Assad.
In the meantime the Secretary of State of the United States has made a commitment to Russia not to supply the rebels with “lethal aid” until a peace conference is held on Syria. This is lopsided arrangement since the Russians have made no parallel commitment not to supply weapons to Assad. Given the capacity of the Russians, the Iranians and of Assad to postpone or drag out such a peace conference indefinitely this is in practice an open-ended commitment not to interfere while Assad’s Russian-armed forces, backed by Hezbollah and the Iranians, establish the conditions on the ground that would skew any possible outcome in their favor. This despite the statements made almost two years ago from the White House that Assad has no future in Syria and the preference expressed explicitly and repeatedly by the US and nearly all American allies in the region and outside of it for the departure of Assad. While the United States has talked the Iranians and the Russians have managed to secure Assad’s position and are now working on scaling his capacity for reversing previous losses.
The perception that prevails in Russia and Iran is that the US under Obama is a pragmatic actor with no strategic vision and no appetite for confrontation. Even though the United States is still militarily and economically dominant in the world it is incapable of utilizing its overwhelming power to shape events because its biggest fear is making a mistake in retrospect, where a mistake is really anything that might look bad in the media. This ties its foreign policy elites in knots discussing whether acting or not acting is the best policy because both policies have risks. Since inaction is always the default policy, it, well, wins by default, and is covered up by diplomatic flurries and meaningless but well choreographed speeches The only thing the Russians and the Iranians need to do in such a situation to give themselves nearly complete freedom of action is to maintain the appearance that America’s inaction and diplomatic flurries might eventually lead to a negotiated outcome. This is enough for a frightened American foreign policy elite to avoid making any decisions which might turn out to having negative consequences even if a policy of inaction practically guarantees negative consequences on its own.
The usual justification for inaction is that the rebels are increasingly infiltrated by jihadis. This isn’t particularly surprising given that the only reliable sources Syrian rebels have for arms and money have been Islamist governments and individuals, mostly in the Gulf states. This is thus a result of the inaction by the US and the West rather than a reason for the inaction. The next question that is raised is whether a Syrian rebel victory is better than a victory by Assad. The true answer is that we don’t know what will happen to Syria if Assad falls. Either Syria will partition along ethnic lines, anarchy will reign or Islamist groups manage to take power. We do however have a relatively clear understanding of what happens if Assad wins – he stays in power and the alliance of Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq and Syria becomes dominant in the region with a new patron in Russia. This new axis will then be in an excellent position to start picking off American allies in the region, starting with Kuwait and Bahrain and eventually Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In different times threats by hostile powers to take over the energy-rich Gulf area would have been considered strategic dangers to the West.
This state of affairs seems difficult to understand without accepting as true the Russian and Iranian perception of the current weakness of America’s foreign policy. The future implications of the evolving situation in Syria are difficult to measure, but the contrast between America’s foreign policy speeches and her foreign policy actions is very stark. It would only be rational for other actors in the region to start planning strategic policy on the assumption that American security commitments are unreliable regardless of the strong rhetoric read out by the most powerful man in the world from a teleprompter.