Obama vs. Putin in Syria

In the lead-up to the Syrian civil war, a deal was brewing between Assad, Obama, and potentially the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem. If Assad would sever his ties with Tehran, Obama was pressing for an Israeli withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights. Originally Obama had been hoping for better relations with the Iranians, but six months into his presidency, the Ayatollahs had cracked down hard on the reformers of the far-Left. The demise of Iran’s only real reform group not only firmly implanted the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, but also ushered in a second term for the arch-conservative, anti-American president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. To this very day, those far-Left leaders are on the outs, and they still languish in the Ayatollah’s dungeons.

Without an interlocutor in Tehran, Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, started to portray Assad as some kind of “moderate” who could be willing to cast off his Iranian partners for a chance at joining up with the American project in the Middle East. Obama knew that his term in office depended on campaign promises to pull American troops out from the Middle East. On this score he had little choice. But with the Shiites firmly entrenched in Baghdad, the president’s Sunni allies in the Gulf were extremely nervous about Iranian regional encroachment into the Arab Levant. Assad understood that Obama’s first priority was American troop withdrawal, so he was unsure about the new president. Bath Party legacy had always been anti-Israel. Assad also understood his position as a minority Alawi dictator in a country whose population was majority Sunni and majority poor. Something had to give. Assad hesitated, and eventually the Golan peace deal evaporated.

Then came the Arab Spring in early 2011. Obama was in the process of pulling out all his American troops from Iraq. In the meantime, Tehran appeared to be calling the shots in the formation of the second Iraqi government under Nouri al-Maliki. Obama already had his eye on his campaign scheduled for the summer and fall of 2012. The rise of the Shiite crescent had apparently fallen off his radar screen. Obama became fixated on satisfying the peace demands of his own base within the Democratic Party; the very same demands were being made by the so-called center-Independents. Without the Center’s votes, Obama could not achieve reelection. As the election approached, Middle East policy had taken a decidedly back seat for the Obama administration.

But suddenly, the Arab Spring protest movement in Syria was being crushed by the brutal Assad regime. With time, the naivete of the term “moderate” –used to describe Assad — gave way. With the coming of the civil war, Obama’s policy toward Syria ran directly parallel in time to his election campaign. If the president had a policy, it was to simply state that eventually “Assad must go”. But that statement was never backed with any formal policy options. For the region’s Sunni Arabs, frustration with Washington intensified. Especially since Obama’s peace campaign had born fruit and it was clear that he would be around for another four long years.

As Assad’s rule wavered with the ebb and flow of the civil war, his use of chemical weapons intensified. Chemical weapons had been a red line for the Obama administration. So in August of 2013, when it became clear that these weapons of mass destruction had been used by Syrian government forces, Obama’s strength and reputation were on the line. Obama failed the test. He decided instead to take the matter of a response to the US Congress. This effectively diminished the perception of a firm US leadership with all of America’s Middle East allies. Only through the offices of Russian President Vladimir Putin did the issue of the chemical weapons get partially resolved.

With the Syrian civil war raging, the regional geopolitical dynamic between the Gulf Sunni Arab states and Iran was being played out all across the Levant. Without strong US leadership, Jihadist forces filled the vacuum of hundreds of localized rebellions across a fragmented mosaic of Syrian nation-state disintegration. In Iraq, the corruption of the integrity of government by a Baghdad clique was engineered with Washington’s benign consent. In fact, al-Maliki’s second-term rise to power had been given the green light by a US administration whose interest in the project of democracy appeared minimal. This lack of American involvement in Iraq undermined all the good work of the “surge” accomplished by the previous administration. Within the Sunni community a deep political alienation set in, and eventually this estrangement led directly to the 2014 disintegration of the Iraqi Army throughout the Sunni provinces.

The Obama Middle East policy (if there ever was a coherent one) failed utterly with the rise of ISIS. The administration’s hands-off management of events only made matters worse. But the Middle East is not a region separated from the rest of the world. While there is a uniquely local and a distinctly cold-war (Saudi-Iranian) regional dimension to the current inferno, there is also a global dimension as well. As US-Russia relations deteriorate over issues of strategic power and the European conventional balance, the Middle East has come into play as a global issue with a potential to become incendiary. The future of the Assad regime, Iran’s nuclear program, and the US war against ISIS all combine to bring the region into a possible superpower confrontation unseen for decades.

Obama cannot win the war against ISIS without winning over the hearts and minds of the region’s Sunnis. His old slogan, “Assad must go”, is the only way to accomplish a change in Sunni perceptions. For months now, Middle East members of his fighting coalition (to defeat ISIS) have been urging him to establish a “no-fly zone” near the Syrian-Turkish border. According to General John Allen, in a recent speech at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C., “discussions with the Turkish government are ongoing and have been productive”. In other words, the rise of ISIS has brought about a dramatic rethink to greater US involvement in both Iraq and Syria.

The Iran nuclear negotiations were originally conceived to be too complicated to include the Ayatollah’s regional role. But the rise of ISIS changed all that. For months now, it has been repeatedly pointed out to the administration that the air war against ISIS, without an anti-Assad component, can only strengthen Iran, especially in combination with a successful nuclear negotiation. Obama’s coalition to fight ISIS is Sunni-led and would break apart without a strong anti-Assad (and therefore anti-Iran) component. Obama’s foreign policy legacy could not withstand a breakup of his anti-ISIS coalition. Washington has finally started to listen to its Sunni allies and perhaps is now ready to take action.

But wait, what about Vladimir Putin? Doesn’t he have a large stake in Assad’s Syria? And what about Iran; are they going to sit idly by as Turkish special forces fill into a no-fly zone on the Syrian side of the border? The bifurcation of the global dimension — with Russia, China and Iran on one side and the US-led coalition on the other — has never impacted the regional dimension like what may be developing now. But a kind of global war has already begun. For Iran and Russia, the Saudi manipulation of the price of oil is having a dire monetary and economic effect on both countries. Potential NATO expansion into the Ukraine has already put US-Russia relations at a twenty-five-year nadir. Putin has to contend with Western sanctions, negative economic growth and a falling ruble. The possibility of US-Saudi oil-market conspiracy is hardly a paranoid fantasy. Add to this mix Russia-Syria advanced air defenses and a failed Iran nuclear negotiation — along with a new British naval base in Bahrain, Chinese naval visits to Iran, Russia’s naval base in Tartus, Syria, the US 5th fleet — and events could really be spiraling out of control.

Now the neo-cons are back in power in the US Senate. Anti-Russian sentiment is at a fever pitch. What if Putin delivers to Assad an undetermined number of advanced S-300 air-defense systems, or those systems get passed on to Iran? Or what if Iran sends IRGC troops to southern Syria to face off against FSA-NATO involvement from Jordan? Certainly the possibility of the P5+1 holding together in any meaningful way would rupture. And speaking of Iran, if regime change in Syria is the new Obama coalition policy, wouldn’t greater Iranian involvement in Syria lead to a rapid acceleration toward nuclear weapons? Wouldn’t this become an urgent Tehran priority? Certainly the Supreme Leader is not going to leave Hezbollah or Assad high and dry. And what about greater NATO involvement with the Iraqi army? Rumors abound, as a Saudi-Iraqi rapprochement begins to take shape with NATO and coalition backing.

What would Israel do in the face of a complete Iranian nuclear breakout from its regional isolation and failed nuclear negotiations? And what would be Iran’s response to Israel, or Russia’s or America’s? These are all Israeli election questions that should be on everyone’s mind. Could it be that Israel’s next leader will need a global strategy?

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).