- By Paul BonicelliPaul J. Bonicelli is professor of government at Regent University, and served as the assistantadministrator for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United States Agency for International Development.
President Obama’s worldwide “Troop Talk” at Fort Meade on Sept. 11 was wide-ranging, covering foreign policy topics as well as reflections on the difficulty of being president and a family man simultaneously. But what stands out is what he said regarding Syria and the role Russia is currently playing in that tense situation. His remarks revealed an uncanny ability to stay on message no matter how much reality he has to ignore.
Obama told the troops that the United States and Russia have converging interests in Syria in fighting the Islamic State. True enough, as far as it goes. But it evades the more important problem that is the regime of Bashar al-Assad — defeating the Islamic State is only treating a symptom of that much bigger issue. Moreover, defeating what was once known in the White House as the “JV team” is not the core interest of the United States, just as it is not the core interest of Russia, and those core interests actually diverge.
America’s core interest — stated clearly by Obama years ago — is the end of the Assad regime. The existence of that regime is the cause of major trouble in the Middle East today and the president rightly averred to end it. Yet, somewhere along the way, he aborted the mission and things have continued to get worse. The deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, some by chemical weapons; the displacement of millions; and a human wave of asylum seekers heading to Europe daily were caused by the Assad regime the United States has left in power four years after saying it must go. Worse, the Islamic State has filled the vacuum Assad’s crumbling state created (he’s losing the war) and now controls territory in Syria and Iraq from which it commits unspeakable atrocities in both countries. Of course the Islamic State is responsible for its actions but Assad’s rule and war share much of the blame. And perhaps the worst result in geostrategic terms for the United States is that Russia is on the ground in Syria defending the Assad regime. Why? Because Russia’s core interest is to maintain in power its primary Middle Eastern ally so that Russia can influence events. This is what the president doesn’t seem to get.
Note his comments at the Troop Talk. He said he has warned Putin in the past that backing Assad will make things worse and cannot lead to a peaceful settlement. But Putin doesn’t agree, clearly; the president admitted as much when he said that Putin didn’t take his warnings. This is because Putin is not looking for the same peace that Obama is. Putin wants to return to the status quo ante of a Syrian regime that keeps the peace in alliance with Russia. If that means Assad remains in power or one of his cronies Moscow is comfortable with, so be it. But it doesn’t mean to Putin that a regime chosen by the Syrian people should come to power, nor any regime that would reject the status of Russian proxy in the Middle East.
Putin has demonstrated his resolve over the last few days by sending numerous cargo ships with weapons and gear to outfit some 1,500 soldiers to set up an air base in Syria. And Obama’s response is to say that we are going to be engaging with the Russian government to let them know that you can’t continue to double down on a strategy that is doomed to failure. Why would Putin care about this warning if he hasn’t cared about any others?
Rather, it appears that the president is doubling down on a plan of action that has been demonstrated not to work for four years. Recall that when the president abandoned his initial plan to get Assad out, he turned to Putin to help him. Putin couldn’t have asked for any better outcome.
Finally, the president advised that “as long as Assad is there, he has alienated so much of the Syrian population that it will not be possible to arrive at a peaceful cease-fire and political settlement, and you’ll continue to have this vacuum that’s filled by extremists.” But again, Putin does not agree. The vacuum will be filled by the Syrian regime once it is strengthened and its enemies are defeated by Russian air strikes and better equipped, trained, and led troops loyal to Assad.
The president’s ability to keep thinking he’s right and that eventually others will see that is startling. Here we have the Russians back in the region, on the ground, on the sea, and in the air, seeking to reverse the losses of their ally so that Russian interests are protected. And they have done so under the obviously false pretense of simply helping to defeat the Islamic State. But have they really been all that coy about it? Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has never acceded to the idea that Assad has to go, but Obama acts as though he and Putin are on the same page. Obama even tries to make lemonade out of lemons, asserting, “It appears now that Assad is worried enough that he is inviting Russian advisers in and Russian equipment in.” Such talk might be Obama attempting to put a happy face on a bad situation, but it might be the White House succumbing to delusion. Assad sees this turn of events as his long-awaited salvation, and Putin as a geostrategic victory.
When happy talk is no longer just political spin but really delusion, we can be sure that ideology is winning the day and not reason. It is unreasonable to assume that the United States and Russia have the same interests in the Middle East any more than they have the same interests in Ukraine and the former Soviet republics.
And what will Obama do when Putin continues to press forward in propping up Assad and bringing to bear the peace he is interested in — the defeat of all challenges to Assad’s authority including the moderate rebels being trained and equipped by the United States? That surely serves his interests, but is it the interest of United States? It would be delusional to think so.
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