It’s rare to find the American media, both liberal and conservative, virtually united in their criticism of U.S. President Barak Obama’s Middle East policy but, following Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 28 and his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, that was indeed the case.
Specifically, the criticism was aimed at Obama’s lack of a coherent plan for Syria (and Iraq) as Putin runs circles around him by building up Russian military might in Syria and extending his influence into the wider region at the expense of the Americans.
New York Times editorials often appear to be conduits for the Obama administration (see all the paper’s comments on the Iran nuclear deal). Yet, regarding Syria and what Putin is up to, even the Times expressed, however mildly, skepticism about Obama’s new call at the UN for “managed transition,” in cooperation with Syria, Russia and Iran, away from Syrian president Bashar Assad to a new “more inclusive” government.
“But there is little reason to believe that any compromise between the Assad government and the opposition fighters, or Washington and Moscow, will happen soon,” the Times wrote. Even more to the point, while the Times acknowledged that Obama didn’t create the “catastrophe” that Syria has become it complained that Obama, while excoriating Assad for the carnage he’s created, “doesn’t have the answer” to change anything on the ground.
The Times also noted that the Obama administration was caught “flatfooted” twice recently: once taken surprise by Putin’s rapid deployment of tanks and jet fighters (there are also reports of Russian troops) to Syria; then by the announcement that Russia will be coordinating sharing intelligence with Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Making the same points, only more bluntly, the more conservative Washington Post argued that “Mr. Obama lacks any strategy to back up [his] vision [of a stable, democratic Syria] or to counter Mr. Putin, who is backing his words with a show of military ‘hard power’ and a flurry of alliance-building in Syria, Iraq and Iran.”
The Post also faulted Obama for having failed several years ago when this might have been feasible “to lend timely, effective support to Syria’s rebellion before extremists took it over.” Now it’s far too late. There is little to choose between Assad, responsible for 250,000 dead Syrians and the displacement of 11 million others – half the country’s population – and ISIS, which has killed far fewer but whose barbarity and plans for a great deal more, may exceed even Assad’s.
Ideas are scant for finding a replacement for Bashar Assad given the hold that Assad’s extensive Alawite clan has in the Syrian “government,” which Putin is sworn to protect and which Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iran’s Supreme leader Ali Khamenei view as a guarantee of their continuing dominance there. No wonder they are thrilled with Russia’s new muscular approach that buffets their own.
Israel, of course, remains worried about what all these developments mean for its own security, especially on the Golan Heights where Iran and its proxy force, Hezbollah, appear determined to entrench themselves in their campaign against the Jewish state.
It’s not a surprise that Netanyahu, the chief of the IDF, and the head of military intelligence flew to Moscow for a meeting with Putin to establish the ground-rules for the IDF’s own operations in Syria to counter these mounting threats including trying to keep advanced Iranian weapons out of Hezbollah’s hands. Netanyahu reportedly came away with some assurances.
Ron Ben-Yishai, the highly respected military analyst for Yedioth Aharnot, late last month said, with partial optimism, that “Russia will probably serve as a stabilizing force in Syria, but what’s less appealing is that it will legitimize an Iranian entrance into the country, under its supervision.” Ben-Yishai was quick to add, however, that “it’s unknown what will come out of the complex regional stew Russia is cooking.”
Uncertainty, instability, and a range of complex speculative scenarios remain the order of the day.