President Obama used the pulpit of the United Nations General Assembly to condemn Russian military meddling in Syria and implore world leaders to back his own strategy: contain the conflict militarily while seeking a political exit for Bashar al Assad. And at all costs, avoid U.S.“boots on the ground” in yet another Middle Eastern conflict.
But Moscow’s buildup of troops and assets in Syria in avowed support for Assad underlines the limits of this approach. While Obama has spent years saying “no” to a menu of unappetizing military options, Putin has quickly upped the ante, forcing Washington to “refocus on facts on the ground,” as one administration official said.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey put it this way: “We are on the sidelines … Putin offers arms, risk and actions.”
“Assad must go” remains the official line, but the Obama administration continues to insist there is no military solution to the war in Syria, and that U.S. forces are there only to battle the Islamic State.
In his Monday address, Obama focused on extremism, even as he reminded the world of the conflict’s origins.
“The United States makes no apologies for using our military, as part of a broad coalition, to go after [ISIS] … We have demonstrated over more than a decade of relentless pursuit of al Qaeda: we will not be outlasted by extremists,” he said. “The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict. But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo.”
“Assad reacted to peaceful protests by escalating repression and killing that, in turn, created the environment for the current strife,” he continued. “Yes, realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out ISIL. But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader.”
The president reiterated the argument in a slightly tempered tone on Tuesday at a leaders’ summit on countering ISIS, saying the U.S. and others are working “to find a political mechanism in which it is possible to begin a transition process.”
Yet when Obama again acknowledged the war’s complexity — “I have repeatedly said that our approach will take time … There are going to be successes and there are going to be setbacks” — it was also a recognition of the grim reality that diplomacy and rounds of Geneva talks have yet to slow the carnage in Syria, which is now estimated to have claimed at least 200,000 lives.
Obama reached the White House more than six years ago on promises to end U.S. military engagements in the Middle East, not begin them, but an air campaign carried out almost entirely by the U.S. and an embattled program to train and equip Syrian rebel fighters has failed to bring Assad to the negotiating table or even make him stop bombing his own population. Now critics and former administration officials alike say the White House’s years of half-measures have narrowed U.S. policy options.
“We either have security and moral obligations, or we don’t,” the administration official told Defense One, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It is like saying, ‘Well, communism is bad, but we don’t have the tools to do anything about it.’ That is the mentality that we have been dealing with with the White House.”
With each of Russia’s moves in Syria and now Iraq, both NATO and the Obama administration have said they were caught off guard — but critics say there’s little surprise that an all-in Putin would step beyond Obama’s red line in the ISIS fight.
Putin answered Obama in his own United Nations address, questioning U.S. resolve and outlining his own version of the situation, which he said requires military action against ISIS — and to support Assad.
“Russia has always been consistently fighting against terrorism in all its forms. Today, we provide military and technical assistance both to Iraq and Syria and many other countries of the region who are fighting terrorist groups,” Putin said, through a translator. “We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face. We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurdish militia are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.”
‘On the Sidelines’
As Russia moves its military assets into Syria, it is also helping to determine the next phase of the bloody conflict — and to show that Moscow, not Washington, is now shaping the region.
Putin, “is full of chutzpah,” said Jeffrey, the former ambassador. “He is willing to use force, he is willing to act, and everyone flows to an actor.”
Even the narrative is up for grabs, as shown in the capitals’ dueling depictions of Obama and Putin’s 90-minute, late-Monday meeting.
The Kremlin framed the meeting as Washington caving to threats of military action, saying the focus would be on Ukraine, and Syria would be addressed if there were sufficient time. The White House described it as a “desperate” plea from a weakened and isolated Moscow whose military buildup in Syria is merely defensive, and even potentially constructive.
As Secretary of State John Kerry said last week, “It is the judgment of our military and most experts that the level and type represents basically force protection, a level of protection for their deployment to an air base, given the fact that it is in an area of conflict.”
On Friday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested that Moscow’s aid shows how close Assad’s regime is to collapse. “I think what’s possible is that Russia is growing increasingly concerned about the fact that their sole remaining client state in the Middle East is descending further and further into chaos, and the autocratic leader that they have propped up in that country for a number of years now is on a downward trajectory … so they are scrambling to try to shore up that investment,” Earnest said. “But I would quibble with the suggestion that they may be doing that from a position of strength.”
After the meeting, an administration official told pool reporters the administration was continuing its “wait and see” approach to Moscow’s moves in Syria. “We have clarity on their objectives,” the official said. “Their objectives are to go after ISIL and to support the government.”
While Putin and Obama still disagree about Assad’s role in Syria’s future, the official said, “I think the Russians certainly understood the importance of there being a political resolution in Syria and there being a process that pursues a political resolution.” Still, “We have a difference about what the outcome of that process would be.”
The official added, “This was not a situation where either one of them was seeking to score points.”
But earlier in his own address to the UNGA, Putin didn’t hesitate to take his shots — a sign, like a grim-faced clink of long-stemmed glasses at a lunch hosted by the secretary general, that Moscow’s challenge is personal, not the “business-like back and forth” that the official described for the presidents’ meeting.
Putin said the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its intervention in Libya — and even its struggling program to train and equip fighters to serve as its proxy ground force in Syria — have forged and fueled the Islamic State. “First, they are armed and trained and then they defect to the so-called Islamic States,” he said. “We believe that any attempts to play games with terrorists, let alone to arm them, are not just short-sighted, but a fire hazard.”
Russia’s ramp-up in the region may not be all bad, the administration official said. “The Russian actions forced a refocus,” the official said. “It helped to refocus in terms of the reality on the ground.” Still, Moscow’s actions may also be forcing the administration to reconsider an interim agreement in which Assad would remain in power, according to the official.
Jeffrey offered a more succinct assessment.
“Putin is on a roll; the forces of disorder are on a roll,” he said. “This is the end of order in the Middle East.”