Fo­cus

Syria war mars Obama legacy

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

The fall of the last rebel-held ar­eas in the Syr­ian city of Aleppo could seal the fate of the “Obama Doc­trine”, deep­en­ing the world’s worst hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in decades and stain­ing US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s legacy. With the US-aligned rebels fac­ing de­feat by gov­ern­ment forces backed by Rus­sia and Iran, Obama’s light-foot­print ap­proach to the Syr­ian con­flict will suf­fer a se­ri­ous blow weeks be­fore he hands power to Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump on Jan. 20.

The rebel loss would un­der­score the fail­ure of US ef­forts to stem the car­nage from Syria’s nearly six-yearold civil war, lead­ing some crit­ics to pre­dict that Obama’s record will be tar­nished just as Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s was by his re­fusal to in­ter­vene to halt the 1994 Rwan­dan geno­cide. “There is no doubt he will be ham­mered in his­tor­i­cal terms,” said Aaron David Miller, a for­mer Mid­dle East ad­viser to Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tions. “The ques­tion will be why he didn’t do more.”

While the war is ex­pected to grind on, Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad’s vic­tory in Aleppo would pro­vide fresh fod­der for Trump, who has ar­gued the in­sur­gency has col­lapsed, and the United States should re­vamp its fight against Is­lamic State by join­ing up with Rus­sia, and by ex­ten­sion, As­sad. Syria has been one of the main test­ing grounds for Obama’s doc­trine of re­ly­ing on lo­cal proxy fight­ers in­stead of large-scale US military de­ploy­ments, re­flect­ing his re­luc­tance to be drawn back into un­pop­u­lar ground con­flicts like the Iraq war.

The ap­proach has fal­tered in Syria, where on Tues­day the Syr­ian army said it could de­clare full con­trol over east­ern Aleppo. A deal was struck to al­low the re­main­ing rebel fight­ers to evac­u­ate their last en­clave there, Russian UN Am­bas­sador Vi­taly Churkin said. “Lead­ing from be­hind leaves a vac­uum that is filled by the Bashar As­sads and Vladimir Putins of the world,” said Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man John McCain, re­fer­ring to how an Obama aide de­scribed his strategy. “I think his­tory will judge that these are un­in­tended re­sults that are go­ing to cause great chal­lenges to the United States for years to come.”

Obama has been crit­i­cized for re­fus­ing to pro­vide suf­fi­cient arms and other sup­port to mod­er­ate rebel groups to com­pel As­sad and his Russian and Ira­nian back­ers to ne­go­ti­ate an end to his au­thor­i­tar­ian rule. “Obama has pur­sued a pol­icy of cal­cu­lated dither­ing in Syria, just ag­o­niz­ing over the choices un­til they no longer ex­isted,” said Emile Hokayem, a se­nior fel­low at the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies think tank.

The Demo­cratic pres­i­dent has de­fended his pol­icy as “ju­di­cious”. His spokesman, Josh Earnest, said it was Obama’s “over­rid­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity” to pro­tect the in­ter­ests and safety of the Amer­i­can peo­ple first. A Repub­li­can, Trump has vowed a dra­matic shift from Obama’s cau­tious strategy to­ward a more ag­gres­sive ap­proach - al­though ex­actly how he will pro­ceed re­mains un­clear. He will in­herit an in­creas­ingly com­pli­cated con­flict in Syria, and many an­a­lysts fear his lack of for­eign pol­icy ex­pe­ri­ence could lead to dan­ger­ous mis­cal­cu­la­tions.

If Trump fol­lows through af­ter Aleppo’s fall on his pledge to co­op­er­ate with Rus­sia, As­sad’s military pa­tron, there is a risk that frus­trated mod­er­ate rebels could grav­i­tate to­ward mil­i­tant fac­tions that pose a po­ten­tial threat to West­ern in­ter­ests. As As­sad him­self turns from the wreck­age of Aleppo to as­sert his au­thor­ity over a frac­tured Syria, he will have to con­tend with the loss of swaths of his coun­try for the time be­ing and tough pock­ets of re­sis­tance still to crush. The war has taken some 400,000 lives and made more than 11 mil­lion peo­ple home­less, driv­ing many into neigh­bor­ing coun­tries or on a long per­ilous trek to Europe.

Cost of In­ac­tion

The im­mi­nent fall of rebel-held east­ern Aleppo - and the sense of US pow­er­less­ness as it un­folds - sug­gests that Obama likely will be judged by his­tory as much for what he did not do as for what he did. He first called on As­sad to leave power in 2011. But Obama never sup­plied mod­er­ate rebels with enough fire­power to top­ple him or force him to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble. His fail­ure to carry out threat­ened air strikes to en­force his 2012 “red line” over As­sad’s use of banned chem­i­cal weapons dealt a heavy blow to US stand­ing, in­clud­ing by some of his staunch­est re­gional al­lies.

Obama also re­jected rec­om­men­da­tions, as re­cently as October, by mem­bers of his na­tional se­cu­rity team for tougher ac­tion against As­sad. In­stead, he gave pri­or­ity to strik­ing Is­lamic State with a US-led bomb­ing cam­paign and lo­cal al­lies as­sisted by rel­a­tively small num­bers of US spe­cial forces. The strategy hewed to a pre­scrip­tion Obama laid out in a 2014 West Point speech in which he made clear he would in­ter­vene in for­eign con­flicts only when he be­lieved US in­ter­ests were threat­ened. — Reuters

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