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Since his inauguration, President Obama’s gullibility about Syria’s brutal dictatorship and its ally Russia’s Middle East objectives has injured America’s stakes in the region. In the third year of Syria’s bloody, grinding civil war, Assad remains in power, contrary to near-universal predictions in the West, and Moscow is still running rings around Washington.
Obama and Secretary of State Clinton erred from the outset. They posted a US ambassador to Damascus for the first time since the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, despite overwhelming evidence Assad’s regime had orchestrated that murder to enhance Syrian control of Lebanon. In June 2009, Obama Middle East envoy George Mitchell met Assad in a misguided effort to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process. (This, after then-Sen. John Kerry had already made the “pilgrimage” to Damacus, probably with Obama’s blessing.)
These moves, along with efforts to ease US economic sanctions, exemplified Obama’s “engagement” policy to end the Bush-era isolation of Syria, all to jump-start both Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. At least, that was the theory — yet today the Middle East peace process lies in ruins, Iran is perilously close to becoming a nuclear-weapons state and the military momentum in Syria runs in Assad’s favor.
The administration’s failures regarding the Ba’athist dictatorship, in Syria’s civil strife and more broadly, are tied inextricably to its even more-dangerous misperception of Russia.
Not only did Obama take office pledging to press the “reset” button with Moscow, but just last year he told then-President Dmitry Medvedev, in a famous “off-mic” comment, that Russia would see more “flexibility” from his administration after the November election..
When Assad’s brutal crackdown against the “Arab Spring” began in Syria, Obama might have swiftly identified pro-Western opposition leaders to assist in ousting the regime. This would have dealt Iran a strategic setback, eliminating both one of its key regional puppets and its main conduit for sending arms to Hezbollah.
But because Obama and Clinton feared that confronting Iran inside Syria, even indirectly, would endanger their plan to negotiate over Tehran’s nuclear-weapons program, they did nothing. Now, Syria’s opposition is rife with terrorists and Islamic radicals; pro-Western elements are hard to detect, let alone sustain. (And of course, nuclear talks with Iran have led nowhere.)
Obama and Clinton completely misunderstood that Russia’s definition of “regional stability” was the exact opposite of Washington’s — for Moscow, it means keeping Assad in power, not his peaceful exit and replacement by a democratic government.
Damascus has relied on Moscow since Cold War days, both politically and for dependably supplying increasingly advanced weapons systems. In return, Syria provides Russia with its only Middle Eastern military base, the key Mediterranean port at Tartus. As with Tehran’s mullahs, Moscow’s every interest and instinct has been to sustain Assad and assist him in fragmenting and then defeating the opposition.
Nor has anything changed since Kerry replaced Clinton at State. He recently traveled to Moscow to bend his knee and ask for Russian assistance in setting up a Syrian peace conference, aiming, yet again, to ease Assad out of power. Russia responded as it has throughout the conflict, agreeing that all Syrian factions should resolve their problems through negotiations.
And since Assad’s continuing support from Russia and Iran means he will never leave voluntarily, the odds for a successful peace conference are just as low as ever.
Russia has also been busily complicating matters. Moscow has equivocated about selling the sophisticated S-300 air-defense system to Syria, so its deployment remains entirely possible. And if S-300s arrive in Syria, does anyone doubt they could find their way to Iran, bolstering its air defenses against possible Israeli strikes on Tehran’s nuclear-weapons facilities?
Moscow is also selling other sophisticated weapons systems, such as anti-ship missiles, to Assad to make a potential Western naval blockade far more dangerous, or perhaps to dissuade the West from launching it to begin with. To underline the point, several Russian naval vessels have deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean, interposing themselves between the Syrian coastline and any potentially hostile naval force.
Kerry’s response: To launch more preparatory talks, starting this week in Oman, for his peace conference.
Various administration scandals may have distracted our attention from the Middle East’s deteriorating security situation, but we can’t long ignore the dangerously destabilizing consequences of failed US policy. Obama may be unable to grasp this reality, but Russia, Iran and Syria see it all too well.
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