Obama: Realistic or Rudderless on Syria?

By Christopher Phillips, Published in Middle East Eye, 16 August 2014

US airstrikes strikes against Islamic State in Iraq this month have inevitably revived the long-running debate over Obama’s Syria policy.

Hawkish commentators leapt on an interview by Hillary Clinton where she appeared to blame IS’s rise on the president’s refusal to arm Syria’s secular rebels in 2012, saying it, “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”

Supporters of Obama responded, as did the president in his own interview, by dismissing such views as “fantasy”.

Aside from the usual political point scoring, these two reactions reflect a wider contest already waging among Washington commentators to define Obama’s foreign policy legacy, and his Syria stance is key. One sees the president’s approach as realistic, the other as rudderless.

The rudderless camp boasts not only the usual neo-cons, but also many who have served the administration, including the former ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford and former special advisor for transition in Syria, Fred Hof.

Hof attacked Obama’s recent interview saying his Syria policy showed, “no evidence of an existing plan or overall strategy.”

Lack of leadership is a common criticism, portraying the president as reactive, without clear goals other than a general aversion to military action. Many add that the primary concern is how actions play in the domestic news cycle.

Obama is painted as aloof and high-minded, seeking advice only from those who reinforce his opinions and dismissing experienced views from the State Department and elsewhere. A small inner circle of close advisors, notably Ben Rhodes, Susan Rice and Denis McDonough, instead determines policy.

To critics, Obama’s approach to Syria is a catalogue of reactive errors. By mid-2011, Obama was convinced, as were most advisors and the state department, that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad would be swept away by the Arab Spring, and so publically called on him to step down.

However, this was not followed up by a clear plan of how Assad’s fall would be achieved, beyond ineffective economic sanctions, condemning rhetoric and diplomatic support for the opposition.

Then-CIA director David Petraeus, supported by Clinton and others, drew up a plan to arm and train the mostly secular rebel militias, but Obama refused. Instead, other actors – notably Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and a host of private donors from the Gulf – armed the rebels, often encouraging Islamist leaning fighters. This weakened the secularists, diminished US influence over the rebels, and created the vacuum that Clinton claims IS filled. 

Obama then exacerbated matters by backing away from a proposed airstrike of Syria in August 2013 after Assad had crossed Obama’s self-declared “red line” of using chemical weapons. By accepting a Russian plan that removed Assad’s WMD peacefully, Obama showed a caution that emboldened Assad and further convinced the armed rebels that Washington was not coming to help, accelerating the attraction of radicals like IS.

However, Obama’s supporters who view his policies as realistic refute this view.  While they accept that the White House made errors, notably the assumption that Assad would fall quickly, since then it has responded intelligently. The rebels – who Obama himself characterises as, “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” – would never have defeated a well-armed state backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Any major armaments plan would likely have sucked the US further into an unwinnable conflict and various academic studies have shown that the Syrian conflict

Syria resembles the kind of classic civil war that research suggests external intervention only prolongs, rather than resolves.

Recognising that the US has never held much sway in Syria, unlike Egypt and Iraq, Obama has instead sought to contain the conflict’s fallout. If read in this way, his policies have been relatively successful.

As Steven Simon, Obama’s former National Security Council senior director for the Middle East, wrote: “US strategy is working well enough, to the extent that it entails staying out of asymmetric engagements in a civil war in a country where American interests are limited.”

Obama has acted when he deems US interests are threatened, and when he believes he can actually achieve a positive result. The rebels have received enough support to survive, including a recent proposed extra $500 mn in training and equipment, but not enough to drag the US in further.

From this perspective, the chemical weapons red line policy actually worked. Obama, who has historically opposed WMD proliferation, succeeded in using the threat of force to remove chemical weapons from the conflict.

Supporters also dismiss notions that Obama didn’t widely consult experts. The problem, insiders argue, is that those calling for more intervention in Syria never presented the president with a satisfactory plan. There was too much ambiguity over the potential radicalisation of armed rebels, the response of Iran and Russia, and mission creep. There was a full and open discussion, which the experts calling for more intervention in Syria lost. Many of these defeated experts now lead the rudderless camp.

At the heart of the debate are two contrasting worldviews. The ‘realistic’ camp is conscious of the limits on US Middle East policy, still reeling from George W. Bush’s failed attempts to remake the region at huge costs in blood and treasure. This has prompted a narrow reading of US priorities and interests, and Syria does not qualify. They would reject the pejorative ‘declinist’ label, but broadly agree with the idea of an increasingly unstable and dangerous multi-polar world and favour offshore balancing over direct intervention. They may question whether any single ‘grand strategy’ is even possible.

In contrast, the ‘rudderless’ camp draws from a US national security establishment that, according to Michael Glennon is, “still committed to trying to run the world”. While they also reject the grand ambitions of Bush, their view of US national interests is much wider. Intervention in Syria is a way of landing a blow to Iran, supporting long-term regional allies and, more recently, defeating the regional jihadist ambitions of IS.

The strikes on IS in Iraq can therefore be read in these two different ways, pointing to different conclusions as to Obama’s future Syria policy. To the rudderless camp, Obama has finally realised the danger of IS. Having blundered in underestimating them in June, he now sees the physical and ideological threat they pose. A strike on their positions in Syria will surely soon follow.

From the realistic camp, no such Syria attack will come. Obama hit IS with very specific and narrow goals, stated as protecting the Yezidis, US personnel already on the ground and Kurdish allies in Erbil. Moreover, it was at the invitation of the Kurdish and Iraqi governments. This fits in with the idea of acting only when US interests are genuinely threatened and when a limited set of goals can realistically be achieved.

No such parallel exists for attacking IS’s positions in Syria: there are no US personnel on the ground and no invitation from the loathed Assad government. Any such strike would require a redefinition of US interests around the wider threat of IS that Obama’s opponents are clamoring for.

However, unless IS suddenly steps up its anti-US activity from Syria, such an attack would not fit the realistic approach his supporters insist he has followed all along. Indeed, it truly would fit the description of a rudderless president.


Understanding Syria’s four-front war

By Christopher Phillips

Middle East Eye, 5 August 2014

Syria’s civil conflict has evolved into a four-front war involving a fight between Islamic State and Damascus, between IS and mainstream rebels, another between the rebels and Assad – and finally one between IS and Syria’s Kurdish militias

As the world media has been preoccupied with the Gaza conflict, Syria has just had the bloodiest week of its civil war. Some 1,700 were killed in seven days, with a renewed push from Islamic State (IS) accounting for much of the violence.

Confident after its victories in Iraq and deploying newly looted military hardware, IS’s sudden charge and the reaction to it in Syria and outside, has tilted the conflict on its axis, challenging various assumptions and shifting dynamics. Increasingly, we can talk about a war being fought on four overlapping fronts by four groupings of actors: the Assad government, IS, the mainstream rebels and the Kurds.

The first front is between IS and President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Assad facilitated IS’ rise by cynically releasing jihadists from prison to radicalize the opposition and then deliberately avoiding military confrontation. Its growth has helped him. IS alarmed the West, prompting some to suggest a rapprochement with Damascus is the least bad option; it terrified his own population, reinforcing the government’s message that it was their only defense; and it physically attacked his enemies in the mainstream rebels while avoiding his own troops. Any implicit alliance was shattered this month, however, when IS stormed three separate government targets in Homs, Raqqa and Hassakeh, killing hundreds of government troops, then gruesomely videoing their heads on spikes afterwards.

Such heavy losses have rocked Assad’s domestic supporters, provoking rare outrage and criticism on social media. Most accept the government’s characterization of all the opposition as sectarian jihadists and many, especially Alawis, have sent thousands to die to defeat them.

IS seem the most brutal of all, especially to another core constituent, Syria’s Christians who have been aghast at the recent expulsion of their coreligionists from Mosul. Yet these defeats challenge the government’s ability to actually defend its supporters. Assad’s forces are actually weaker as a result of the IS attack in Iraq, as many of the Iraqi Shiite militia who had fought for him returned to defend their homes. However, he cannot afford to isolate his base, and a more concerted campaign against IS can be expected, stretching his resources thinner. This was seen already when one lost area, the Shaar gas field in Homs, was retaken.

Assad misread Syria’s second front, the war between IS and the mainstream rebels. He assumed that IS would finish off the weakened rebels before turning on him. True, IS has recently conquered many rebel territories, pushing Jubhat al-Nusra out of Deir es-Zur and making inroads into the Aleppo countryside, but it is no longer playing Assad’s game. As it expands and occupies more land, it requires further troops and an acquiescent local population. While it still seeks military victories over rival rebel groups, it also wants to woo their fighters. Similarly, according to the Delma Institute’s Hassan Hassan, it is making more effort to win hearts and minds in the regions it conquers. Turning its guns on Assad achieves both goals: countering any former accusations that it was the government’s ally and presenting itself as the best route to its overthrow.

On the other side, the mainstream rebels seem as divided as ever. While they temporarily united to push IS out of the north in January, the various militia and fiefdoms continue to compete for territory and resources. The Washington Post noted how the US’ closest ally, Harakat Hazm clashed with Ahrar as-Sham over control of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing last week. Despite Western attempts to paint these rebels as “moderate” the reality is that most are, more accurately “non-IS Islamists”, with Jubhat al-Nusra an al-Qaeda affiliate. Given how fluid allegiance to rebel militia has been, there is a real chance that idealistic young fighters impressed by IS’ momentum could peel away.

This is increasingly likely as the rebels face defeat in Syria’s third front, the war between themselves and Assad. By ignoring IS, Assad has focused on recapturing Aleppo. He has replicated the brutal tactics used to recapture Homs in March: depopulating hostile districts with barrel bombs before moving on the rebel fighters remaining.

Retaking Syria’s second city would allow Assad to declare the war won, even if much of rural Syria remains out of his control, and would certainly cripple the rebels. This decline and IS’ surge has prompted urgency in Washington, and the familiar calls to “arm the rebels” are heard again, with some proposing the rebels could be trained to simultaneously resist Assad and IS.

This is fanciful. IS defeated Iraq’s national army within days and there is no reason to suggest an uncoordinated collection of feuding militia could rapidly overcome three years of disunity to do better. Even if they could unite, the resources proposed are too few. President Obama has authorized $500m to train and arm rebels, but this won’t appear until 2015 and the covert weaponry delivered so far is restricted to eight small carefully vetted groups, having limited impact.

Moreover, after the MH17 disaster in Ukraine, there is even less appetite from the White House to deliver the anti-aircraft MANPADS that hawks demand. More positively, after three years of backing rival rebel groups, the IS crises seems to have sobered Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and stronger coordination may follow. These efforts may prove enough to keep the mainstream rebels in the field, probably around Deraa and Idleb, and may even prevent too many fighters switching to IS. However, it is unlikely they can form a realistic rival to IS and the increased support will probably come too late to prevent Assad’s march on Aleppo.

Changes have also come on Syria’s fourth and least reported front: the battle between IS and Syria’s Kurdish militia. The Kurdish militias, led by the PYD – the PKK’s Syrian wing – have used the Syrian civil war to carve out autonomous regions, clashing with IS in the process. July saw intense fighting over the PYD-controlled border town of Ain al-Arab / Kobani, prompting a radical new position from Turkey.

Fearful of Kurdish nationalism, Turkey had previously opposed the PYD closing its border to prevent any support from the PKK. In contrast it allegedly turned a blind eye to those supporting IS. However, the IS attacks into Iraq prompted a U-turn. With Ankara now realizing the size of the IS threat and fearful that Ain al-Arab would give it a launch pad into Turkey, the border was opened prompting a stream of 1000 PKK fighters into Syria to help the PYD hold off the advance. While Kurdish-IS clashes will likely continue, the emergence of a united PYD-PKK military force is a new dynamic. Ironically it may provide Turkey with a much-needed IS buffer, but it also increases the likelihood of an autonomous Kurdish Syrian region becoming a reality.

Despite these changing dynamics, none of the four groupings looks likely to win outright. Assad might take Aleppo, but he will face increased public pressure to take on IS, stretching his limited military resources. The mainstream rebels may be facing imminent defeat, but they probably have enough external support to remain in the field.

Syria’s Kurds now have PKK support, but that remains subject to Turkish border policy. Even IS, seemingly in the ascendency, must manage the shift from invader to occupier, and win over enough fighters and civilians to continue its march west. IS’ recent charge may have shifted, dissolved or solidified the Syrian civil war’s fronts and actors, but it seems more likely to perpetuate the conflict further rather than hurry its end.