When it comes to Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama wants to it both ways. On the stump, the president happily attacks Donald Trump for his conspicuous fealty to the Russian autocrat. But the president has spent the majority of his two terms in office rehabilitating Moscow for his own narrow policy objectives. Even today, Obama continues to lean on Russia to de-escalate the conflicts it has exacerbated, diminishing both the stature and the authority of the United States in the process.
Last week, after months of intensive negotiations, Russia and the United States finally reached an agreement that would supposedly force combatants in Syria to observe a cease-fire. Again. The last time a tailored cease-fire agreement had the imprimatur of both Russia and America, it ended within two weeks amid claims by all sides that the terms of the truce were being violated. The collapse of the Syrian ceasefire in May closely mirrored the collapse of a similar accord in February—another pact that had the blessing of both Washington and Moscow. If past is prologue, no one should be holding out much hope for the success of this new truce.
“There will be challenges in the days to come. We expect that. I expect that. And I think everybody does. But despite that, this plan has a chance to work,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Washington in announcing this new cease-fire deal. “This is the best thing we could think of.”
That wasn’t Kerry’s only bombshell announcement. He also seemed to indicate that, as part of the new agreement, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could execute strikes on militants linked to Islamist militias, so long as those strikes were approved by Moscow and Washington. For those aware of the scale of the humanitarian nightmare unleashed by Assad’s air force targeting rebel and civilian alike, this admission should cause great consternation.
The State Department quickly contradicted Kerry’s assertion, underscoring how poorly the terms of the still-secret arrangement are understood and how they are subject to various interpretations. The fact that Assad greeted the new deal by publicly declaring his intention to retake all the rebel-and-Islamist-held territory in his country seems to confirm that Damascus hasn’t gotten the message in regards to a post-civil war power-sharing arrangement.
“We’d have some reasons to be skeptical that the Russians are able or are willing to implement the arrangement consistent with the way it’s been described,” confessed White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. That’s promising awareness on the part of this White House, but it comes about seven years too late.
Where were those concerns in 2009 when, just months after Russia invaded and carved up the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the White House was tapping the “Reset” button and conceding to Moscow’s demands to scrap planned anti-ballistic missile batteries and radar installations in Central and Eastern Europe?
Where were those concerns when the White House invited Russia to de-escalate the potential conflict between Assad and the West in 2013? Those chemical weapons stockpiles Russia was supposed to help dispose of are still in Assad’s hands, and the conflict in and over Syria that Obama hoped to avoid was delayed by only a few months.
Where were those concerns when Moscow brazenly intervened in the Syrian civil war and executed their opening airstrikes on US-aligned rebels and CIA-provided weapons depots, exposing a covert American program in Syria to the world in the process?
The saddest part of all this is that no matter who wins the presidency in November, Obama’s Syria policy will be subject to very little revision.
Clinton has promised to “defeat ISIS without committing American ground troops” to either Syria or Iraq, the presence of American special forces in Syria notwithstanding. Clinton’s one-time pledge to create no-fly zones over Syria in which Assad’s air force could be prevented from operating was long ago rendered defunct by the prohibitive presence of Russian air power over Syria.
For his part, Donald Trump has promised to create no-fly zones in the skies and safe zones on the ground, all of which would require a massive U.S.-led presence. Just to underscore that he has no intention of following through, however, Trump has repeatedly promised to make the “Gulf States” pay for the project. That will not be forthcoming, and so neither will his promised limited intervention into the Syria conflict.
2017 will be another bleak year for Syria. The worst humanitarian, geopolitical, and terrorism crisis of the 21st Century will continue to rage. This is a legacy that will prove difficult for Obama to shake. America is paying the price for an administration that was ideologically committed to both non-interventionism and deference to the world’s rising powers. The tragedy is that Americans don’t yet seem to recognize that fact.