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March 16th 2016 print

Peter Mulherin

Missing in Action, the United States

Whatever Barack Obama aimed to achieve in Syria with half measures and rhetoric, allowing he had any firm notion to begin with, must be deemed far from fruition. The contrast with Putin's willingness to place military muscle at the service of strategy could not be more clear -- or more damning

obama baffled IIIThe announcement by Russia’s truculent leader, Vladimir Putin, that his nation’s forces are to withdraw from Syria confirms what we all suspected: propping up the Assad regime was, and is, Russia’s key priority in the region. Its mission ‘fulfilled,’ only months after entering the fray, the Putin model of pursuing goals is, in its own way, impressive. Granted, the methods chosen by the Russian military have given only slightly more concern for civilian casualties than the Assad regime, however the dogged determination to get things done, and quickly, has shown, along with the war in the Ukraine, the ease with which Putins turns bellicose rhetoric into action. Russia is not alone in its efforts to seek an outcome to the Syrian conflict favourable to its aims, as Turkey also is heavily invested.

Despite the current reprieve in Syria as a shaky ceasefire holds, violence is increasing in neighbouring Turkey, a NATO member and alleged bastion of moderate Islam. The most recent terrorist attack in Ankara, which killed over 30 people, has not yet been claimed by any group, however it is likely to be the work of either a Kurdish separatist movement or the Islamic State. Fighting his own war against the Kurds within his country, as well as against various enemies over the border in Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has sought to expand the culpable parties in terrorist attacks. There is no difference, he insists, between ‘a terrorist holding a gun or a bomb and those who use their position or pen to serve those aims.’

The irony of this comment cannot go unnoticed: while an ally quickly claimed by the US, Turkey has not only become increasingly Islamist in recent years, and apparently allows the passage of foreign fighters into Syria, but explicitly supports—along with Saudi Arabia—a coalition of hard-line Islamist factions in Syria fighting the Assad regime. One of the member groups included in this sponsored alliance is the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda spin-off responsible for attacks throughout Syria, and a ‘terrorist’ designated group according to the UN.

The approaches of both Putin and Erdogan, while on opposite sides of the conflict, can be juxtaposed with that of the United States and its Western allies. ‘Our’ strategy has wavered dramatically between seeing Assad go, full stop; presumably removing him if he crossed the ‘red line’ of using chemical weapons; supporting ‘moderate’ resistance fighters, some of whom joined the Islamic State, and all of which did little to accelerate the demise of the Assad government; and the current situation where peace talks could well lead to the Assad regime remaining in control of Syria anyway.

Whichever way you look at it, over a quarter of a million people have died in Syria, and while the present situation on the ground has improved due to the ceasefire, the future is far from clear—especially when you acknowledge the incompatible goals of Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Syrian people themselves.

What the West hopes to achieve in Syria is uncertain, other than the destruction of the Islamic State. This should be a comparably easy goal to achieve, considering the fact that no state officially supports the group. What is certain, is that the United States’ influence in the region has dropped to historic lows, as countries more willing to get hands dirty in pursuit of their goals have emerged. Thanks to the benefit of hindsight, it’s now clear that the US should have acted earlier, and more decisively in Syria. The prompt establishment of a no-fly zone, the enforcement of ‘red lines,’ and even the deployment of troops to maintain security and avoid the lawlessness seen during the Iraq occupation. Obviously, such a ‘hawkish’ suggestion would have been met by howls of indignation at the alleged neo-colonialism/Western imperialism. However, when the human toll is considered and the refugee crisis with which the West also is expected to deal is recognised, it seems justifiable to act in a preventative way.

The alternative, which we see playing out daily, is a maelstrom—Syria is the battle-field on which sectarian, geopolitical, and even domestic issues can be dealt with. Regional and international players, at seeing the reluctance of the US to get involved (except at the level of tokenism), quickly seized their opportunity and turned a civil war into a much worse conflict with endless non-state actors, power-hungry nations eager to get a slice of the pie, a catastrophic death toll, and millions of refugees expecting the West to host them.

With November’s US election fast approaching, any candidate who suggests that the US has either conducted its Middle East policy well under Obama, or that America ought to pull up the drawbridge, is deluded. They need look no further than Syria to see what happens when Washington does not lead from the front.

 

Comments [8]

  1. Colin S says:

    After watching Middle East wars for over 50 years, I am beginning to see (and about time too)the hopelessness of finding any remedy. Frankly, I think the West (USA and us)should stay out. Being involved, and not in a small way, has only produced more problems than it has solved. The West does not need the Middle East Oil, although oil companies might, so the requisite and essential reason no longer exists for being there.
    The refugee problem is a very regrettable by-product but Europe’s handling of it is causing their particular problems. Better to give aid to establishing safe-havens in the area than what is happening now. But, in the end, it is for Europe to sort out.
    Furthermore, I will add, the British have an opportunity to get out of Europe’s mess, I hope for their sake they take it. It is a chance that only comes once.

    • ianl says:

      > The West does not need the Middle East Oil

      Apart from that comment, which puzzles me, I agree with you.

      • David Barnes says:

        Don’t need their oil? Try living at this level of consumption without it. ‘ We’ do need it. Why do you think the west would have the slightest interest in this god forsaken part of the globe if it where not for the oil?

    • pgang says:

      Stay out? So that nuclear states can run amok? So they can spread their violence indiscriminately? So that our enemies can infiltrate and control? So we leave it all up to Israel to maintain sanity in the region?

  2. Bill Martin says:

    The history of the Middle East, particularly of recent times, renders the trite slogan “Islam is a religion of peace” into a sick, ghastly joke. The participants in the bloody turmoil are exclusively Muslims, save the few Russians, now departing. Yet not only Muslims but also their imbecilic apologists and enablers continue to parrot the idiotic slogan. Obama happens to be one of the prime axamples. Bizarre, to say the least.

  3. Bran Dee says:

    ‘Religion of peace’ is a cryptic puzzle of course. Dar al-Islam is the region where Islam rules and Sharia law applies. All other regions are Dar al-Harb, the house or region of war. Jihad aims to expand the first region by overwhelming in the region of war and then peace through submission is supposed to prevail. Diabolical fantasy!

  4. pgang says:

    “However, when the human toll is considered..”

    The new fascists don’t care about the human toll. We have witnessed that here in Australia with opposition to immigration policy and now this Safe Schools horror.

    • Max Rawnsley says:

      Many consider the ‘progressive’ dialectic we see on show and urged on sometimes unwittingly by the commentariat is exemplified by the pushing of a social agenda rather than the more complex economic issues. Leads to a group think approach that the ‘government’, that wretched quasi conservative construction is the source of our misery. Add a serve of ‘envy’ and the progressive dialectic is successful in gaining many supporters who only wish for their ‘entitlement’