The situation in Syria could hardly get more desperate. With more than half the population displaced and 300,000 people dead, the civil war in Syria is the greatest humanitarian disaster of our time. But Syria is also a profound challenge to the American-underwritten geopolitical order that aspires toward free institutions and representative rule. As a direct consequence of policies pursued by the Obama administration, Iran and Russia, two enemies of this order, have taken their chance to assert their dominance.
Russia began airstrikes in Syria on September 30. In late August, reports emerged of the deployment of Russian ground forces, followed quickly by the deployment of Russian air-defense assets in Syria. Russia used its tremendous propaganda skills first to deny that the intervention was happening and then to present it in terms the rest of the world would swallow — namely, as intended against the Islamic State (ISIS). Just over a week ago, a Russian jet flown by Syrian military struck ISIS in support of a regime advance around Kweiris airbase in Aleppo.
But the mask soon slipped: Russia’s first direct airstrikes hit U.S.-supported moderate rebels in areas more than 50 miles from ISIS. In the end, Russia did not even look for a fig leaf when striking non-ISIS targets, including Jaysh al-Fatah, an insurgent coalition that has al-Qaeda as one component. Russia instead went straight for attacks on the most politically viable alternative to Bashar al-Assad.
This is the culmination of President Barack Obama’s transformative Middle East policy.
The confirmation a few days before of an intelligence-sharing agreement between Russia, Iran, the remnants of Assad’s regime in Syria, and the Iraqi government gives a glimpse of the shape of the regional order. Obama wanted to draw down American resources in the region and replace American hegemony with a concert system that could balance the competing interests of the powers. Such a dynamic is a fantasy. In reality there were two competing coalitions, America’s traditional allies and an axis headed by Russia and Iran, and Obama’s policy tilted to the Russia–Iran axis. American hegemony has been broken in the Middle East, but its replacement is not equilibrium; it is the predominance of America’s adversaries joined in an increasingly close alliance.
From President Obama’s earliest days in office he was engaged in outreach to Iran, urging Tehran to see that America and Iran had common interests. In recent years defeating ISIS has become the convenient cover for this policy.
From President Obama’s earliest days in office he was engaged in outreach to Iran, writing letters to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, urging Tehran to see that America and Iran had common interests. In recent years defeating ISIS has become the convenient cover for this policy. The nuclear deal, which releases tens of billions of dollars to Iran, purportedly to improve the lot of the Iranian people and fight ISIS but in reality to prop up Iran’s Islamist empire, has formalized détente between the two nations.
For the fight against ISIS in Iraq, America now provides airstrikes to ground forces led by Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s Quds Force (IRGC-QF, the expeditionary unit charged with exporting the Islamic revolution), even though the U.S. has designated Suleimani and the IRGC-QF as terrorist entities. In Syria, America strikes at ISIS and al-Qaeda, which frees up Assad to attack the moderate rebels. Obama told Iran in advance of the airstrikes and reassured Tehran that Assad would not be a target. In short, Assad has a U.S. security guarantee, and across the Fertile Crescent the U.S. is working in tandem not only with forces sympathetic to Iran but with forces actively funded and directed from Tehran.
The most flagrant moment of the U.S.–Iran partnership was Obama’s refusal to enforce his own red line on chemical-weapons use in Syria in August 2013. Obama did not want to get involved in Syria — he told the Iraqi prime minister in December 2011, “We have no intention to intervene militarily” — but by the time of the Ghouta atrocity Obama was a year into secret talks with Iran on a nuclear agreement, and just weeks away from announcing the “interim” deal. Iran had intervened deeply in Syria in late 2012, virtually seizing control of the Syrian state; Obama did not want a shooting war with Iran.
It was the Kremlin that found Obama an exit from a snare of his own making: Obama would call off the airstrikes against Assad, and Assad would surrender his chemical weapons. Of course Assad never did, and never will, surrender them. He simply switched from using sarin to using chlorine. But Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has always maintained that Assad is the legitimate ruler of Syria and that all his foes are “terrorists,” got the U.S. to legitimize Assad. The U.S. now needed Assad to stay in power as a partner until the disarmament process was complete — another reason why Assad would never let it be complete. In the meantime, Assad had a license to kill with conventional weapons, and U.S.-affiliated rebels were demoralized and nearly destroyed: a near-perfect victory for America’s enemies.
The trampled red line two years ago has given Putin a green light for military action within other countries. Just months later, Putin annexed Crimea — the first forceful change of border in Europe since 1945 — and moved to occupy parts of eastern Ukraine, something that has already become the “new normal.”
Outsourcing Middle East policy to Moscow, while looking to help Iran become a “very successful regional power,” was always a one-way street. Once it became the default state of affairs, it would be difficult for the U.S. to turn the clock back.
Outsourcing Middle East policy to Moscow in this way, while looking to help Iran become a “very successful regional power,” was always a one-way street — once this became the default state of affairs, it would be tremendously difficult for the U.S. to turn the clock back. And the harvest is now before us. Suleimani went to Moscow directly after the nuclear deal was signed in July, and the agreement there was for Iran to deploy “hundreds” of IRGC-QF troops in coordination with the Russians, to buttress Assad. Putin has supplied weaponry and specialist intelligence assistance to the Assad regime for years, while also sending Islamic militants from the Caucasus into Syria — the same double-game the Assad regime and Iran have played to make the choice in Syria a binary one between the dictator and a terrorist takeover. But now, according to an American intelligence official, “the Russians are . . . co-leading the war in Syria.”
In grand terms, Russia’s is not a major intervention — a few dozen tanks and fighter jets and 2,000 troops — but didn’t have to be. Everyone from the Turkish president to the Israeli prime minister has visited with Putin to “deconflict” — to avoid a collision with Russian forces. Putin is now the go-to man in Syria, and since Syria is the center of the contest for order in the Middle East, the ramifications of that fact are wide.
Many Western leaders have begun accommodating themselves to these Putinist facts on the ground. Both the British and the Australian governments have in the last few weeks voiced support for Assad’s being allowed to stay to lead a “transition.” What that means is that the West would cease to try to depose Assad by force, in exchange for the promise that Russia and Iran would force Assad to leave eventually. The West would make a concrete concession in exchange for an intangible promise all too easily evaded.
Part of the reason for this shift is the belief that Russia can help stabilize Syria. Because of the refugee crisis, many Europeans especially are tempted to think it can. But this is dangerously wrong. Russia’s air-defense systems now protect Iran’s weapons shipments to Hezbollah (which is, in concert with Iran, likely more to blame than ISIS for the massive displacement in Syria) from interception by Israel. In other words, Russia is supporting the forces causing the instability in Syria — it is Assad that has caused the displacement in Syria, not ISIS.
Like those at the center of the expanding Iranian imperium, Russia is unconcerned with humanitarian matters. Reducing the slaughter of innocents, stemming the refugee crisis, even defeating ISIS — these are not Russia’s aims. Moscow’s sole intention is the preservation of the regime.
President Obama wanted to reorient U.S. policy in the Middle East, and he has. Allies and alliances have been undermined, and America’s enemies Iran and Russia are coalescing into new alliances to more effectively counter American influence and interests. Meanwhile, the spread of Iran’s and Russia’s influence is strengthening radical forces more generally — since Russia’s intervention, two rebel groupings have joined al-Qaeda. Even if a new president were to begin reversing course tomorrow, the effects of Obama’s foreign policy could not be undone for a very long time, and America’s enemies are now positioned to reap the harvest of Obama’s failed foreign policy for many years to come.