Politics

Obama, Leading From Behind, Deemed Irrelevant On Syria Cease-Fire

Obama aides say what’s important is that the violence stops. But the president’s critics say his hesitation to use force has led others to fill a power vacuum in the Middle East.

President Barack Obama’s administration tried for months to broker a durable cease-fire in blood-soaked Syria, practically begging Russia to come to terms but ruling out the possibility of using U.S. military force against the Syrian regime to back up its diplomatic pressure.

Early Friday, a truce was set to take hold in Syria, but the United States was left out of the process that led to it. Instead, Russia, working with Turkey, took the lead, not long after its warplanes helped the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad crush rebels in the northern city of Aleppo.

Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has warned that the new cease-fire is “fragile,” and there were scattered reports of violence and unhappy rebel factions still mulling their options. Still, the fact that any sort of truce was reached without the U.S. bolstered a longstanding criticism of Obama: that by ruling out force against Assad, he weakened the U.S. negotiating position, allowing other powers to fill the vacuum in an increasingly unstable Middle East.

“The Russians understand the relationship between military means and diplomacy infinitely more than Obama does,” said Robert Ford, a former Obama administration ambassador to Syria who is now with the Middle East Institute.

To the Kremlin’s delight, President-elect Donald Trump may essentially continue Obama’s policy and decline to wade too far into Syria. Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, has indicated he will cede efforts to end the Syrian civil war to the Russians, including dropping U.S. financial and logistical support for rebel forces battling Assad.

And despite criticism from both the left and the right for his pro-Russia stance, Trump has pledged to cooperate more closely with Moscow on other fronts, including the fight against terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.

Russia, Turkey and Iran all played a role in brokering the latest truce, which includes the Syrian government and an array of Syrian rebel forces. The cease-fire does not cover terrorist networks such as the Islamic State, which continues to fight in Syrian territory, including against U.S. Special Forces. And there are lingering questions about whether Assad, along with his Russian and Iranian patrons, will designate some of the rebel groups battling him as terrorists and attack them despite the truce.

The United States cautiously welcomed the cease-fire, even as it urged the parties to pursue negotiations for a longer-lasting political arrangement.

Obama administration officials told POLITICO that they still believe any political agreement must include Assad leaving office. But they sidestepped questions about whether the lack of a U.S. role in the truce suggested American influence in the region was declining.

“Any effort that stops the violence, saves lives, and creates the conditions for renewed and productive political negotiations would be welcome,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement. “The international community hopes this ceasefire will hold so a Syrian-led transition toward a more representative, united, and peaceful government can begin.”

Secretary of State John Kerry has led intensive efforts to secure a cease-fire in Syria, despite having no military card to play. At least two major truces were agreed upon in the past year, but both were short-lived. After being unable to bridge its differences with the Russians, the U.S. took a lower profile several weeks ago, even as Assad’s forces, backed by Moscow and Tehran, brutally attacked Aleppo.

The barrage against the northern city appears to have been a major turning point in the nearly six-year-old Syrian war, which has left some half a million people dead and millions more displaced. At the very least, it left Assad in a stronger position and likely drew the rebels to the negotiating table.

Turkey’s decision to help with the truce also shows how much the situation on the ground has changed in the Middle East over the past six years, and how much U.S. power has been challenged.

The Turkish government has long been deeply hostile to Assad, but the country’s relations with the U.S. have soured over accusations that an American-based religious scholar was behind a failed coup attempt earlier this year in Turkey. And this month’s assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey by a gunman shouting about the need to remember Syria appears to have brought Moscow and Ankara closer.

Philip Gordon, a former top aide to Obama on Middle East issues, said Russia and Turkey’s involvement could make this cease-fire last longer than past attempts because both have been key external sponsors of factions in the conflict.

“I think Turkey has pivoted from an anti-Assad priority to a priority of containing Syrian Kurds and the Islamic State,” Gordon wrote in an email. “With the Syrian regime having taken Aleppo, it now has most of what it wanted, which gives it more of an incentive to maintain a ceasefire, especially as they don’t have the manpower to retake the entire country. And as for the anti-Assad opposition, having lost Aleppo, without support from Turkey, about to be abandoned by the Trump administration, and Saudi Arabia distracted in Yemen, they have little alternative but to cut a deal if they can.”

Gordon, who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations, said it wasn’t ideal for the U.S. to be cut out of the diplomacy, “but our greater interest is in an end to the conflict in Syria that has killed hundreds of thousands and is radicalizing an entire generation, and if this is a step in that direction that is a good thing.”

Critics of the administration, however, blamed Obama’s reticence for the fact that the war in Syria has dragged on for so long in the first place and giving the Kremlin the edge. “This latest cease-fire, should it hold, only proves that Putin is still calling the shots,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, a Republican from California.

Obama, who came to office in part due to his opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, has long said he does not believe the U.S. should engage militarily in conflicts which are not vital to its geostrategic interests. He’s also said that the U.S. should be willing to let other countries or regional blocs take the lead in resolving some conflicts, suggesting he believes the U.S. is shouldering an unfair burden in global security.

Still, even some of the Democratic president’s supporters say he could have done more in Syria.

“He knew what he didn’t want to do. He never knew what he wanted to do. He over-learned the lessons of Iraq,” said Bruce Jentleson, a former State Department official who now teaches at Duke University.

Ford said the short-term results of the cease-fire could be fruitful — fewer deaths, more humanitarian assistance and perhaps a greater focus by the U.S., as well as Russia and Syria, on fighting the Islamic State jihadists. The challenge, he said, is that groups like the Islamic State draw recruits because of the repression of dictators such as Assad.

“To the extent that the root problem behind extremist recruitment in places like Syria and even Iraq is bad governance, then the Americans have not fixed the long-term problem, and the Russians have not thought about the long-term implications because they are focused solely on a military solution,” Ford said. “The recruitment problem ties back to Bashar Assad.”

The Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella opposition group, welcomed the truce on Thursday, but it sounded a note of caution about the potential future role of Iran and its militias, warning that they may “seek further escalation and violence.” Turkey is reported to have insisted that Hezbollah, the Shiite militia backed by Iran, leave the Syrian theater.

“The regime itself has lost the ability to make decisions, so the decisions have to be coordinated with the Russians and the Iranians,” said Hadi al-Bahra, a top figure in the coalition. He added that he hopes the U.S. will keep trying to pacify the country and bring about a political solution, even though it appeared that during the presidential transition period, the American government has been “paralyzed.”

On Thursday, as word spread of the Syrian truce, the U.S. announced a new set of sanctions on Russia over its alleged hacking and other interference in this year’s presidential election. Trump, the unexpected winner of that election, has downplayed allegations of Russian interference.

According to Russian media, the Kremlin is eager for Trump to take office join its efforts to end the Syrian conflict.

“I would like to express my hope that after the administration of Donald Trump assumes its duties, it will also join the efforts [on the Syrian conflict settlement] in order to channel this work into one direction basing on friendly and collective cooperation,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.

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