In spite of vehement denials by the United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, Russian President Vladimir Putin has, indeed, turned the tables on Obama’s strategy to end the war in Syria and the fault rests with America’s weak White House. The US had years in which to end the slaughter decisively, but instead chose to involve “incrementally” — read, at snail’s pace.
America’s commander-in-chief, accused by his critics of “leading from behind”, was not strategically committed to eradicating Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in either Syria or Iraq and neither was he prepared to override Congress to launch air strikes on Syrian regime targets. His eyes opened wide only when Russia took control of this blood-soaked party on the regime’s behalf and Europe was flooded with refugees. Suddenly, what was formerly a localised problem affecting Syria and the neighbouring countries hosting refugees, obliged to pick up a tab they could ill-afford, morphed into an international crisis, not to mention a battle for hegemony between major powers. Now that the situation on the ground has swung in Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s favour due to Moscow’s intervention, the political opposition has lost what little leverage it once had, which is why it has to be dragged to peace talks. Moreover, they feel betrayed by their US ally that has failed to heed the pleas of fighters for ground-to-air missiles.
And, worse from their perspective, Kerry is no longer vocal about Al Assad’s imminent departure. Kerry is frustrated. He knows his country is being held over a barrel and there is little that can be done about it. This consummate diplomat, who normally chooses his words well, lost it following the collapse of the recent talks in Geneva. When told that the opposition will be decimated within three months, he has been quoted as telling an aid worker: “Don’t blame me. Go and blame your opposition ... What do you want me to do? Go to war with Russia? Is that what you want?”
Nobody in his or her right mind will wish for a devastating World War, but it didn’t have to come to this, if Obama had taken responsible decisions to end the unimaginable sufferings of the Syrian people two, three, four or five years ago. He erased his own “red line” over the regime’s use of chemical weapons.
He authorised the training and arming of radicals who promptly joined Al Qaida, Jabhat Al Nusra or Daesh, before conceding the Pentagon and CIA training programmes had been failures when they were wound-up. As for his efforts to cleanse Syria of Daesh, they’ve been met with derision. Until the Russians entered the fray, the faux caliphate’s de facto capital Raqqa was left intact and convoys of trucks transporting oil were left untouched.
Al Assad is trumpeting his victories and saying that he will take control of the entire country, while admitting that it will take time. ‘Moderate rebels’ insist they will continue fighting until their last breath, but with Homs having fallen to the Syrian Army and Aleppo now encircled cutting off the rebel supply route from the border with Turkey, their claims are sounding like bravado. If Aleppo is besieged like Madaya and other towns were, if regime barrel bombs don’t seal their fate, starvation will.
Under heavy international pressure from governments, aid organisations and human rights groups, Russia has agreed to a cessation of hostilities that does not include groups designated terrorist by the United Nations to permit aid inflows and to create an atmosphere conducive to peace negotiations.
But as Aaron David Miller, writing on the CNN website, rightly predicts, the pause is a long shot and maybe mission impossible due to the “hundreds, if not thousands of large and small militias with little centralised control or discipline”. In other words, a few misplaced shots could give Moscow an excuse to continue its bombing campaign.
Of course, it’s possible that Putin and Al Assad are rattled by the prospect of a Saudi Arabia-led air and land operation to recapture territories controlled by Daesh and other terrorists. The Independent reports that “Saudi Arabia is sending troops and fighter jets to Turkey’s Incirlik military base ahead of a possible ground invasion of Syria” — a deployment confirmed by Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. It’s unlikely that this initiative will go ahead as long as there is a ceasefire in place and the prospect of serious discussions exists.
One thing is certain: The jury’s out on what the future has in store for this embattled country and its long-suffering people, but unless the fat ladies in Washington and Moscow can sing from the same hymn sheet, this tragedy will be prolonged for many more months or years to come, with untold consequences impacting us all.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.