By Fred Fleitz
Published November 06, 2015
As I’ve discussed on Fox News.com before, President Obama’s Syria/Iraq policy is not a policy. It is a non-policy to do as little as possible about the chaos in these countries so he can hand this mess to the next president.
The Obama administration has announced two major policy shifts in two years to deal with the Iraq/Syria crisis and the threat from ISIS. Neither exhibited the decisive leadership that the world expects from the United States. Both were reactive and piecemeal moves to counter multiple humiliations of America.
This has created a growing global perception of American weakness and indecisiveness that will embolden America’s enemies for the remainder of the Obama presidency and possibly beyond.
The first policy shift, announced in a speech by President Obama on September 10, 2014 in response to a series of ISIS beheadings, was supposed to “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIS. The president said this effort would include “a systematic campaign of airstrikes” in Iraq and Syria, training and equipping of moderate Syrian rebels, increased support to the Iraqi army and stepped up humanitarian assistance.
The failure of the September 2014 policy shift was obvious soon after it began. Pinprick airstrikes in Syria did not stop ISIS from making gains on the ground. In Iraq, ISIS took the city of Ramadi last May despite being outnumbered 10-1 by the Iraqi army. The Iraqi army and the Iraqi Kurds clamored for more arms while the Obama administration sat on its hands.
Obama’s 2014 policy shift suffered a spectacular collapse this fall when a failed $500 million program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels was cancelled and Russia intervened in Syria and began conducting airstrikes against anti-Assad rebels, many backed by the United States. Iran also stepped up its presence in Syria by sending troops who are fighting to prop up the Assad government.
This rapid collapse of President Obama’s Syria/Iraq policy over the last few weeks has caused serious damage to American credibility. Russian President Putin mocked and ignored President Obama as he sent Russian forces into Syria. An intelligence sharing agreement was signed between Russia, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Iraqi lawmakers even called on Russia to conduct airstrikes against ISIS positions in their country.
The Obama administration responded to these setbacks with a new policy shift that looks even worse than the last one.
The president is sending “fewer than 50” special operations troops to help advise an alliance of Syrian Arab rebels. Given the lack of a clear policy and confusing rules of engagement, such a small deployment will be scoffed at by America’s adversaries and may be at risk of being captured. On Monday, President Obama made the preposterous claim that this deployment is consistent with his pledge of “no boots on the ground” in Syria and Iraq because these troops will not be on the front lines fighting ISIS.
The New York Times reported on November 2 the Syrian Arab rebel alliance that U.S. special operations troops are supposed to be advising doesn’t yet exist and is dominated by Syrian Kurds who mostly want to carve out their own state and have little interest in fighting to take back Arab territory from ISIS. Moreover, American military support of the Syrian Kurds worries Turkey because of their close ties with the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group in Turkey.
The U.S. dropped 50 tons of weapons for the Arab alliance in late September. Although U.S. officials initially said Syrian Arabs and not Syrian Kurds were the recipients of the airdrop, according to the New York Times, Syrian Kurdish fighters had to retrieve these weapons because the Arab units for which they were intended did not have the logistical capability to move them.
The Obama administration’s latest Iraq/Syria policy shift includes a renewed call for Assad to leave office and a new round of Syrian peace talks.
New U.S. demands that Assad step down make little sense due to increased Russian and Iranian support.
The first round of U.S.-brokered Syrian peace talks were held last week in Vienna. 17 nations participated, including, for the first time, Iran. The talks produced a vague communique endorsing a future cease-fire, a transitional government, a new constitution and elections in which Syrians would select a new government. However, it seems unlikely the Assad regime – which was excluded from the talks – or its Russian and Iranian backers will ever support free and fair elections.
Russia and Iran rejected a timeline proposed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the peace talks under which Assad would step down in four to six months and national elections would be held in 18 months. This puts a cease-fire out of reach since most Syrian rebels will not agree to a peace process that leaves Assad in power.
The Syria talks were overshadowed by the unwise decision by the Obama administration to include Iran because its presence legitimized its interference in Syria and Iraq. This also made the talks tumultuous due to open feuding between Iranian and Saudi officials. More talks are scheduled but Iranian officials have said they may not participate due to their differences with the Saudis.
So far, Mr. Obama has not agreed to Pentagon recommendations to back Iraqi forces with Apache helicopters or to allow U.S. military advisers to serve on the front lines with Iraqi forces. These proposals are still reportedly under consideration. Meanwhile, Republican congressmen continue to demand the Obama administration directly arm the Iraqi Kurds who are struggling to battle ISIS with inadequate and obsolete weapons.
America’s friends and allies know President Obama is pursuing a Syria/Iraq non-policy to run out the clock. They know Mr. Obama’s initiatives are not serious policies but minor gestures that allow the president to be seen as doing something now while also enabling him to claim after he leaves office that he did not put U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria nor did he get America into another war.
Alliances in the Middle East are already shifting because of President Obama’s Syria/Iraq non-policy. Russia is filling a power vacuum in the region and is building a new alliance with Iraq, Iran and Syria. Russia has improved its relations with Egypt and Israel. Although the Saudis are working with the Obama administration to arm moderate Syrian rebel fighters, Riyadh is frustrated that the U.S. is considering compromise solutions which could leave Assad in power. Saudi Arabia also reportedly is considering providing surface-to-air missiles to the Syrian rebels, a move the U.S. opposes since these missiles could fall into the hands of ISIS.
America’s enemies are certain to try to exploit the run-out-the-clock foreign policy that President Obama apparently plans to pursue for the remainder of his term in office. This could mean a surge in global provocations, terrorism and violence from North Korea to the South China Sea to Afghanistan and to the Middle East due to the disappearance of American leadership over the next 15 months.
Remember that the weakness and incompetence of President Clinton’s foreign policy emboldened Al Qaeda to step up terrorist attacks against U.S troops and led Osama bin Laden to believe that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks would drive the United States from the Middle East. With Barack Obama dithering away America’s global credibility, a catastrophic terrorist attack like 9/11 could happen again.
Fred Fleitz is senior vice president for policy and programs with the Center for Security Policy, a Washington, DC national security think tank. He held U.S. government national security positions for 25 years with the CIA, DIA, and the House Intelligence Committee staff. Fleitz also served as Chief of Staff to John R. Bolton when he was Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security in the George W. Bush administration. Fleitz specializes in the Iranian nuclear program, terrorism, and intelligence issues.