The jihadists struck Paris on November 13. On that Friday the 13th, the band on stage in the Bataclan theater, where 89 people were murdered, was Eagles of Death Metal. The song it was playing was “Kiss of the Devil.” The details sound like something out of Hollywood, but the horror was deadly real. In total, the terrorists would murder 130 people, the vast majority in the prime of their lives.
The multiple massacre left France reeling, vulnerable, and also deeply confused—but not about the nature of the operation. Islamic State (IS) took responsibility for the attacks, which were clearly another spillover from the Syrian civil war. Their so-called mastermind, the Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud, had spent time in Syria as the head of an IS unit devoted to dispatching jihadis to Europe. Earlier in the year, in a profile in Dabiq, IS’s propaganda magazine, Abaaoud flaunted the fact that he was planning acts of mass murder. “We spent months trying to find a way into Europe,” he said, “and by Allah’s strength, we succeeded in finally making our way to Belgium. We were then able to obtain weapons and set up a safe house while we planned to carry out operations against the Crusaders.”
So the problem was clear, as was the threat: global jihad enjoyed a safe haven in Syria, which allowed it to build jihadi networks across Europe and the Middle East. French confusion stemmed not from identifying that threat but from figuring out what, practically, could be done about it. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, stepped forward. France, he said, is “in the worst of situations. We are sufficiently prominent to be a target, but not prominent enough to eradicate these barbarians.” His solution: “[T]he Russians must be associated with the work of the coalition to destroy [Islamic State].”
Sarkozy’s proposal was not new. Vladimir Putin himself had first floated the idea of a unified alliance against Islamic State two months earlier, at the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. At the time, the government of François Hollande responded tepidly, observing that Russia was less interested in defeating Islamic State than in propping up the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad: a vicious sectarian actor whose wholesale slaughter of Sunni Muslims was IS’s greatest recruiting tool. In the view of the French government, Assad’s barbarism, abetted as it was by the Russians and the Iranians, was thus also the main cause of the refugee crisis plaguing Europe; until he was deposed, a stable new order would never arise.
This position was intellectually compelling, but now, in the aftermath of the November 13 attacks, the French public expected action, not analysis. The image of Putin’s fighter-bombers laying waste to Islamic State, however unrealistic, was politically popular among the country’s conservative and right-wing parties. Even before the latest attacks, a current of opinion in Europe was looking to Putin as a necessary partner for bringing stability to Syria and, thereby, stanching the flood of immigrants.
After Paris, the influence of this current made itself felt in the realm of high diplomacy. When the G20 met in Antalya, Turkey, the following week, Putin was the center of attention. According to the Financial Times, “an audience with the Russian president was one of the hottest tickets in town, as Western leaders were forced to recognize the road to peace in Syria inevitably runs through Moscow.” This was an astounding turnabout. Only a year earlier, at the G20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia, the Russian dictator had been an outcast. Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, had set the tone, reportedly greeting Putin by saying, “Well, I guess I’ll shake your hand, but I only have one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine.” Putin, grumbling, left the proceedings a day early.
What a difference a year makes—a year, and a major military intervention. By dispatching Russian troops to Syria in September, Putin enhanced his image as a man of action and a leader who gets results. Contrast this with the image of the American president, Barack Obama. The day before the attacks in Paris, Obama announced that Islamic State had been “contained”—meaning that his own strategy was working. The next week, in Antalya, he pointedly refused to revise that assessment, instead making it clear to his fellow leaders that if they expected more to be done to defeat Islamic State, it was up to them, not the United States, to do it. “[M]ore nations,” he said, “need to step up with the resources that this fight demands.”
Obama’s critics have decried his refusal to reconsider his strategy, but few have endeavored to describe what that strategy is—perhaps because they do not believe he actually has one. In fact, he does. What is more, he not only believes it to be effective but regards it as a defining achievement of his presidency. And about this he is unfortunately right. The Obama strategy has indeed been shaping the Syria crisis in myriad unseen ways, one of the most important of which has been to clear the path for Vladimir Putin to play a major role in the Middle East and, by extension, to present himself as the savior of Europe. The rehabilitation of Putin, that is to say, is not occurring during a fit of absentmindedness in the White House; it is a direct consequence of Obama’s vision of global order.
To see why this is so, how it got to be so, and why, barring a truly radical reconsideration, it will almost certainly remain so for the rest of Obama’s tenure, we need to spool back all the way to the first months of his first term and then follow the threads forward to the multi-dimensional crisis now facing America in the Middle East—a crisis in whose unfolding the president’s strategy has played a deep and calamitous role.
I. In the Beginning Was the Reset
In the beginning was the Russian “reset”: the effort, launched two months into the president’s first term, to repair relations between Washington and Moscow. Those relations, Obama and his national-security team believed, had severely deteriorated under the presidency of George W. Bush, but a determined effort to start afresh would generate significant benefits in many areas of American concern. Throughout his first term, Obama and his inner circle regarded the Russian reset as a diplomatic masterstroke. Then, in the second term, came the Snowden affair. In the summer of 2013, the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden stole and exposed details about the U.S. government’s surveillance programs and then managed to escape to Russia, where he eventually received asylum. It is an open question whether Russia had manipulated Snowden as he planned and executed his operation or was simply giving safe haven to a fugitive. Either way, the incident damaged both the vaunted claims for the reset and America’s national security.
Things took an even worse turn in February 2014 when protestors in Ukraine overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych for scuttling an association agreement between that country and the European Union. Yanukovych had acted in obvious deference to Putin, who as Russia’s president had strongly opposed Ukraine’s turn toward Europe. Following Yanukovych’s removal, Putin moved quickly to annex Crimea, an autonomous Ukrainian republic, and to foment unrest in eastern Ukraine, sparking a war between pro-Russian insurgents and the new government in Kiev.
When Obama responded to Putin’s aggressive conduct by imposing sanctions on Russia, commentators were led to pronounce the reset a complete failure. Yet the president, for his part, seems never to have skipped a beat. In his thinking, the reset was always intimately bound up with what he considered to be his greatest strategic challenge: namely, ending old wars and avoiding new ones. In the Middle East, the old balance of power, resting as it did on the primacy of American military might, seemed to Obama like an invitation to never-ending conflict. Needed instead was a new regional order—one that, beyond enabling a president to pull American troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, would preclude the necessity of ever having to send them back in.
From day one in the White House, therefore, Obama aimed to create that new order. His idea was a concert system: a club of nations that, united in their enmity to Sunni Islamic radicalism, would work together to stabilize the region by self-consciously maintaining a balance of power among themselves. And central to that vision was Putin, who in Obama’s mind had been antagonized by the Bush administration’s war on terror and its foolish devotion to democracy promotion: policies that had caused Russia to react by withholding cooperation on matters of obvious mutual benefit like defeating al-Qaeda and containing Sunni radicalism.
The Russian reset had been Obama’s way of inviting Putin to join the new Middle East concert as a founding member. To unlock the benefits of shared interest, America would take a step back and encourage Russia to take a step forward. Whatever obstacles Russian behavior might present along the way, the fundamental soundness of the strategy was not in question.
There were others to bring in as well—most notably, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Of course, in the midst of the controversy over Tehran’s nuclear program, it was impossible simply to issue an Iranian “reset.” But, the president’s thinking went, perhaps that controversy could be moved to one side or, rather, be made a means to a larger end. Attaining an agreement on Iran’s nuclear ambitions—the prerequisite for any American opening to the regime in Tehran—would thus also become an avenue toward the prospect of Iran’s joining the envisioned concert system.
The Russian reset and the Iranian nuclear negotiations were thus two bright crimson threads in a single tapestry, and so they remain today. For obvious reasons, the president has never described this vision in full; the American public, and America’s traditional allies in the Middle East, deeply distrust both Russia and Iran. Instead, he has proceeded step by step, justifying each new step as an ad-hoc response to immediate developments while keeping his eye firmly fixed on the final goal.
II. Stepping Aside in Syria
That’s where Syria comes in, and where the threads begin to merge. A country of vital importance to both Russia and Iran (and of limited importance to America), Syria offered opportunities for showcasing Obama’s respect for Russian and Iranian interests. Seizing those opportunities took on special urgency after the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011 and the country quickly became the central battleground in a contest for regional mastery.
At the heart of the contest was a simple question: should Assad stay, or should he go? For Moscow and Tehran, there was no doubt that he should stay, and they strongly supported him even as he proceeded to unleash increasingly lethal and indiscriminate attacks on civilians. In 2012, Iran and its proxy, Hizballah, introduced their own forces into Syria to fight on behalf of the regime, prompting their regional rivals—who also happen to be America’s traditional allies—to turn to Obama and request American help in training and equipping the Syrian opposition.
The heftiest elements of Obama’s national security team—the Department of State under Hillary Clinton, the Department of Defense under Leon Panetta, and the CIA under David Petraeus—came down in favor of the allies’ request. The president, however, overruled his senior advisers. No doubt he feared a slide into a prolonged engagement and another episode of American embroilment in the region. But he also feared permanently alienating Russia and Iran, thereby destroying forever his dreams of a new Middle East concert of powers. As a sop to America’s traditional allies, back in August 2011 he had called on Assad “to step aside,” a phrase suggesting he had committed the United States to regime change. But he had not—at least not in any conventional sense.
Over the months and years following the war’s outbreak, Obama would define in ever more explicit detail the path by which he expected Assad to leave office: a path that he eventually dubbed a “managed transition.” The Assad regime, the president argued, must negotiate directly with its Syrian opposition, because, as he has insisted time and again, “there are no military solutions.” Together, the two sides should come to an agreement over a process of transition to a more “inclusive” order. In the early stages, Assad himself could remain in Syria in a head-of-state role, but the day-to-day duties of government would devolve to a transitional executive. In the later stages, Assad would step down from power.
From the beginning, the White House has insisted that such a “managed transition” would harm neither Syria’s “state institutions,” meaning the core of the Assad regime, nor the interests of Russia. “We have certainly made clear that our interest in Syria is not the end of any kind of Russian influence,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national-security adviser for strategic communications, in 2012. A solution for Syria could come about, Obama himself later emphasized, only if “myself, Mr. Putin, and others are willing to set aside [our] differences and put some pressure on the parties on the ground” (emphasis added).
In reality, the idea that the Assad regime would preside over a political reform in the midst of the bloodiest civil war in modern Middle East history was farfetched, to say the least. That Putin and “others”—an obvious reference to Iran—might endorse such a project and actively help Obama to implement it was more unrealistic still. If such a plan were actually to materialize, it would automatically spell the end of Russian and Iranian influence in Syria, an outcome self-evidently not in the interest of either party.
The reason was easy to see but was often lost even on well-informed observers. Central to the concept of a managed transition was the need to reform the Syrian government by opening it up to Sunni participation. Putin played along with the idea and has continued to do so—but only up to a point, because he understands that a vibrant Sunni presence in Syria’s government would crack apart the regime, which is based on the power of the Alawites, whose religion is an offshoot of Shiism. In short, Sunni participation in the government would destroy the very foundation on which Russian and Iranian influence rested. Regardless of what Moscow and Tehran might whisper in private from time to time, they would never agree to it.
To Obama, however, this elemental consideration carried no weight because the foundations of the Syrian regime seemed in any case to be crumbling. It was obvious to him that Assad’s days were numbered. Sooner or later, therefore, events would force Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to see that the best way to secure their interests was to work together with the United States on fashioning a new political order in Syria. In the meantime, Washington could exercise, in the lingo of the administration, “strategic patience.”
Many observers, perhaps most, have declined to credit Obama with this level of strategic planning. Instead, they have limited their criticisms to depicting him as timid, incapable of making hard decisions, and hence buffeted by events. What they habitually fail to take into account is that on the foreign-policy issues he cares most about, Obama tends actively to shun the counsel of others. The Financial Times may have been the first to recognize this defining trait, calling it all the more remarkable because the president came into power with virtually no international experience and his tight-knit inner circle included no one with foreign-policy gravitas. Yet not only did he display extreme confidence in his own acumen, the paper observed, but his more seasoned aides were held at arm’s length. “The truth is that President Obama is his own Henry Kissinger—no one else plays that role,” a senior official was quoted as saying. “Every administration reflects the personality of the president. This president wants all the trains routed through the Oval Office.”
Obama, then, was solely and fully in charge—and on a few key issues he played his cards very close to his chest. One such issue, as the March 2012 episode of the “hot-microphone” revealed, was Russia. On that occasion, Obama quietly advised Dmitry Medvedev, then the Russian president, to pay no heed to the mounting public pressure on the White House to reconsider its Russia policy. This was an election year, he explained in what was clearly intended as a confidential message to Putin. “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved, but it’s important . . . to give me space. This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.”
Back then, it was politically still too risky for the president to divulge the extent to which his overall strategy in the Middle East hinged on cooperation with the likes of Putin and Khamenei. Therefore, when it came to implementing the “managed transition” in Syria, he staged an elaborate and prolonged show of deliberation. The huge American national-security machinery went to work, churning out position paper after position paper and sparking debate after debate among members of the White House team. As these debates spilled over into the press, they created an illusion of feverish activity.
Amid the hubbub, however, the president remained oddly detached. “Mr. Obama rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings” devoted to Syria, the New York Times reported. To participants, “he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.”
Regardless of what his aides would finally recommend, Obama knew all along that he was going to do nothing but wait, patiently, for the Russians and Iranians to warm to the idea of working in concert with the United States.
III. Red Lines in the Sand
In the summer of 2012, Obama did deviate from his policy of “strategic patience” in one significant way. Drawing what he would notoriously call a “red line,” he defined the conditions under which the United States would actively enter the Syrian conflict. If, he said, the United States started “seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized, that would change my calculus.”
To a Middle East dictator, a red line is what a vacuum is to nature. Time and again over the next months, Assad filled that vacuum with sarin-gas attacks on the civilian inhabitants of rebel-controlled areas. When reports of these attacks first emerged, the White House pretended that it lacked sufficient information to determine Assad’s culpability. By June 2013, when the evidence became too overwhelming to overlook, the president appeared to be impaled on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, he had drawn a red line, and his personal credibility was at stake. On the other hand, his dream of a concert system was just then beginning to look tantalizingly close to realization.
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For, by now, the White House had established a secret channel to Tehran—a channel that promised to deliver a major breakthrough on the Iranian nuclear program. Any effort to punish Assad would simultaneously alienate his supporters Russia and Iran, whose cooperation was vital to a successful conclusion of the negotiations then inching toward an interim agreement.
In keeping with his dream, Obama had managed the dilemma by turning for help to Vladimir Putin and the Iranians. “At our urging, over months, Russia and Iran repeatedly reinforced our warning to Assad” to cease his chemical attacks, Susan Rice, the national-security adviser, would later assert. “We all sent the same message again and again: don’t do it.”
But Obama was still in no position to tell the American people that cooperation with Tehran and Moscow was, in his view, a viable substitute for American military deterrence. As commander-in-chief, he had laid down a marker and Americans expected a show of force. And so he gave them one—but with emphasis on the word “show.”
On June 13, 2013, Ben Rhodes issued a statement. “The president has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has,” Rhodes said. “Put simply, the Assad regime should know that its actions have led us to increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the [Syrian] opposition.”
The statement was as vague as it was portentous. What specifically was the United States going to give the rebels? In the following days, the answer arrived in the form of press leaks not from White House officials but from anonymous sources attesting that—through the CIA—Obama had begun to channel covert lethal support to the Syrian opposition. Around the same time, the president appeared on a television interview with Charlie Rose and hinted that the leaks were accurate. “I’ve said I’m ramping up support for both the political and military opposition,” Obama explained. “I’ve not specified exactly what we’re doing, and I won’t do so on this show.”
Exactly what he was doing for the opposition was, in fact, next to nothing. But by delivering a pittance through the CIA, and then leaking the existence of this covert channel to the press, Obama created the appearance of action while also providing himself with an ironclad excuse—operational security—for refusing to discuss any details. Most presidents use the CIA to hide America’s fist; Obama used it to conceal a tethered arm.
The move—call it covert inaction—was a clever invention. But by reaching out to Moscow and Tehran for cover, Obama had also broadcast to them his intense desire to avoid any involvement in Syria. Assad, Putin, and Ali Khamenei drew the obvious conclusion: the United States was giving them a free hand. The chemical attacks duly continued. Two months later, in mid-August 2013, Assad carried out the most brazen attack yet—on Ghouta, a suburb outside Damascus, killing approximately 1,500 civilians in one night.
The Ghouta attack played out under klieg lights. Within hours, videos of dying children gasping for air had spread across the Internet. And yet, for all that the atrocity generated renewed pressure on Obama to “change [his] calculus” and enforce his red line, he declined to do so. On the Iran front, it looked as if, thanks to the secret channel, an interim nuclear agreement might be only a matter of weeks away. A major strike against Assad would threaten to upend the whole process, which by now Obama regarded as even more enticing than the Russian reset. In his mind, the crisis facing him boiled down to one question only: how to erase the red line but avoid looking weak.
His immediate answer was to hide behind Congress. At the eleventh hour, after preparing the groundwork for a strike against Assad, he suddenly reversed course and announced that he needed congressional authorization for the use of military force. Although he delivered this explanation to the public with plausible sincerity, it was clear, as serious observers said at the time, that he had no practical policy for stopping Assad’s chemical attacks.
In short, the president was still out on a limb. And then who should come running with a ladder but Vladimir Putin. Thanks to quiet American-Russian consultations over the previous years, Putin had already grasped both Obama’s desperate desire to avoid military action and his dream of establishing a concert system, now compounded by his need to save face. In order to erase the red line permanently, Obama needed a concession from Assad—and, in a virtuoso diplomatic performance, Putin proceeded to deliver it, brokering a deal that satisfied all of the president’s requirements. In exchange for Obama’s agreement not to attack Assad, Putin, with the support of the Iranians, would help dismantle the Syrian dictator’s sarin-production facilities and stockpiles.
Obama was delighted. The “good news,” he said in a primetime interview, “is that Assad’s allies, both Russia and Iran, recognize that this [use of sarin] was—this was a breach, that this was a problem. And for them to potentially put pressure on Assad to say, ‘Let’s figure out a way that the international community gets control of . . . these weapons in a verifiable and forcible way’—I think it’s something that we will run to ground.”
Throughout 2014, the Obama administration indeed ran the “something” to ground, and with ostensible success. Chemical-weapons experts under the authority of the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons traveled to Syria, identified production sites and stockpiles, and then destroyed them. Obama promptly touted this as proof of his contention that shock-and-awe displays of hard power were counterproductive and that his coercive diplomacy was what had stripped Assad of his chemical weapons. “Let’s be very clear about what happened,” he boasted in a March 2014 interview. “I threatened [sic] kinetic strikes on Syria unless they got rid of their chemical weapons.”
Again, the reality was rather different. For one thing, the Russians and Iranians never admitted that Assad had used chemical weapons. On the contrary, they blamed the Syrian opposition. More importantly, they never lived up to their end of the bargain. According to reliable reports from the U.S. intelligence community, Assad failed to hand over all of his stockpiles of sarin gas. Nor did he destroy all of his production facilities. Nor did he stop gassing civilians, though he did switch from sarin to chlorine as his gas of choice.
As for Putin, he reaped the reward of a complete American withdrawal from the red line at virtually no cost to himself. As an added bonus, Obama was more inclined than ever to treat him as a partner.
IV. Recalcitrance and Realpolitik
The severe limits of this new American partnership with Russia showed themselves clearly in January 2014, when Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, worked together with the United Nations to convene a major conference in Geneva dedicated to brokering peace in Syria. The meeting was remarkable in that representatives of both the armed Syrian opposition and the government were attending the same event.
The White House saw this as its best opportunity so far to advance, together with the Kremlin, the idea of a managed transition. But the Russians saw things differently. For them, soft-power meetings in glitzy Europe were just so much busy work, useful for diverting American attention from what truly mattered: hard-power solutions in the gritty Middle East. Therefore, when Kerry tried to push the Geneva negotiations in directions that might actually influence the balance of forces on the ground, Lavrov morphed from partner to rival. With strong Russian support, the Syrian delegation proceeded to play a highly obstructionist role, and the conference turned into a farce. Kerry left in failure, and did not mince words about Russia’s responsibility. “Russia needs to be a part of the solution,” he complained, “not contributing so many more weapons and so much more aid that they are really enabling Assad to double down.”
As if this lesson in realpolitik wasn’t clear, Putin quickly reinforced it with another. Over the next two months, Russia annexed Crimea and unleashed mayhem in eastern Ukraine. This stood Obama at last before a fateful question. Should he continue with the original assumption of his reset—the assumption that a Russian-American partnership could stabilize volatile regions—or should he treat Russia as a strategic rival?
The president’s answer took the form of Reset 2.0. It was now incontrovertible that Putin was proving more recalcitrant than expected; in deference to reality, Obama levied costs on Russia for its aggression in Ukraine by imposing sanctions that gradually escalated throughout 2014. At the same time, however, he stuck by his original determination to avoid a geostrategic competition with Russia. “The United States does not view Europe as a battleground between East and West, nor do we see the situation in Ukraine as a zero-sum game,” Obama told a Dutch newspaper in March 2014. “That’s the kind of thinking that should have ended with the cold war.”
Most important of all, the president rejected the very idea of using American military power as a means of deterring Putin. “To say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution,” Obama stated in a speech to the graduating class at West Point in May 2014. “When crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us—then the threshold for military action must be higher.” In those cases, the United States would replace the unilateral exercise of American hard power with other tools: “diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law; and, if just, necessary, and effective, multilateral military action.”
In a number of ways, Reset 2.0 would simply reinforce Putin’s already well-developed sense that Obama was giving him a free hand in Syria. To begin with, the president had been quick to reassure the Russians that the conflict over Ukraine would remain compartmentalized and that Russian aggression there would not harm American-Russian cooperation in Syria. At the same time, he made clear that the United States would impose neither an economic, nor a diplomatic, nor a military price on Putin’s continued support of Assad’s murder machine.
Suppose for a moment that Obama had been inclined to impose such costs. Could he have done so? He certainly had the means at his disposal. To give just one example, he might have developed a robust train-and-equip program for the Syrian opposition—much like the one that he publicly announced in his May 2014 speech at West Point. There, standing before the graduating cadets, he declared his intention “to ramp up support” for the anti-Assad rebels—the same phrase he had used a year earlier when pretending to funnel lethal aid to the Syrian opposition through covert channels. Now he was promising to deliver it overtly—through the Department of Defense. But had the intent truly shifted?
It took a long time—over a year, to be exact—before the birth of the West Point train-and-equip program actually occurred. In the end, as the administration would sheepishly reveal this fall, it was a stillbirth: to date, a total of four or five Syrian fighters have graduated from the program and joined the fray, at a cost of roughly $100 million per man. Evidently this was a price the president was willing to pay in order to create the elaborate façade of a Syria policy while urging the Iranian nuclear deal forward from interim agreement to final agreement.
Obama had promised the graduates at West Point that he would “help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his own people.” Just a few short months later, he broke this promise by sending a letter to Ali Khamenei, urging the Iran’s supreme leader to bring the nuclear negotiations to a close so as to unlock the full potential of American-Iranian cooperation on matters of regional security. In that same letter, he pledged that American activities inside Syria would target neither Assad nor his security services.
On the outside, then, the Potemkin train-and-equip initiative in Syria created the illusion of forcing Assad to “step aside.” Behind the scenes, Obama tacitly recognized Syria as a Russian and Iranian sphere of interest.
These days, Obama barely disguises the fact that his support for the Syrian opposition was entirely insincere. “Steve, this is why I’ve been skeptical from the get-go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside Syria,” Obama told CBS’s Steve Kroft during a recent interview on 60 Minutes. In this light, it is hardly surprising that the longer the nuclear negotiations with Tehran wore on, the softer grew Obama’s position on Assad’s ouster.
By November 2014, the president was publicly including Iran and, implicitly, Assad himself as members of the concert that would settle the Syria question “[A]t some point,” he said at the G20 summit in Australia, “the people of Syria and the various players involved, as well as the regional players—Turkey, Iran, Assad’s patrons like Russia—are going to have to engage in a political conversation.” In March of this year, Kerry expressed a willingness to meet with Assad himself. By mid-September, he was showing extreme flexibility with regard to the timing of Assad’s departure from Syria. During the managed transition, Kerry said, Assad wouldn’t have to leave “on day one or month one or whatever.” The key was not to force the dictator out but to establish “a process by which all the parties have to come together and reach an understanding of how this can best be achieved.”
“All the parties,” “a process,” “an understanding”: in other words, the real goal, and the real achievement, would be to establish American coordination with Russia and Iran.
By the time Kerry uttered these words, in any event, Vladimir Putin was already ferrying men and materiel to Syria in support of an impending military intervention designed to bolster Assad. He had organized that initiative jointly with Iran. According to the agreement between the two, Russia would provide air power while Iran and its proxies, Hizballah and the Shiite militias of Iraq, would supply the forces on the ground.
Four years of intense consultation with Obama about the Syria problem had taught Putin three crucial lessons: Obama regarded Syria as a Russian-Iranian property; he was loath to intervene there; and he would never use American military power to deter Russia. In that light, it made perfect sense that the Russians and Iranians would form a military alliance to save Assad, and that American insistence on Assad’s departure would grow ever fainter in the face of their resolve.
V. Obama’s Accommodation
To those who had not been following Syria closely, it would appear as if the Russians and Iranians bested Obama, presenting him with a fait accompli in Syria that left him with no good options for countering their move. This, however, sidesteps the fact that for more than four years, Obama had been laboring quietly but steadily not to counter the Russians and Iranians but to accommodate them—in the process, whittling away at American options for staying their hand in Syria. Moreover, there are grounds for suspecting that the president had become aware of an approaching Russian-Iranian move and did nothing to deter it.
The timelines are deeply suggestive. According to Russian sources, the September intervention took some nine months to prepare. Somewhere in that interval, Putin entered into his understanding and alliance with Ali Khamenei. According to Iranian sources, the key turning point in the two countries’ strategizing came in July when Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, made a “surprise” visit to Moscow.
The planned Russian intervention was a major operation requiring coordination among elements in several countries over a period of many months. When did U.S. intelligence first get wind of its unfolding? When did it become clear that the Iranians were also involved? Did the State Department and Pentagon make recommendations to the president about how to forestall the operation? What did the president know, and when did he know it?
One thing is abundantly clear. Whenever it was that Obama himself first got wind of Putin’s plans, the American public remained in the dark. The first reports about the intervention came not from him but from the international press—and they came very late, as the Russians were already on the move in early September. When asked for comment, the administration depicted Putin’s behavior as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. “Russia has asked for clearances for military flights to Syria, [but] we don’t know what their goals are,” an anonymous official told the press. “Evidence has been inconclusive so far as to what this activity is.”
Whatever he knew, and whenever he knew it, Obama would have had a powerful incentive for keeping the American people uninformed. He might well have feared that Putin’s machinations would interfere with the successful conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal, then being initialed in Vienna and readied for submission to the U.S. Congress. Here again the timelines are revealing. The deal was concluded on July 14; Congress had until mid-September to review it. The Russian and Iranian joint preparations over Syria coincided, almost to the day, with this period of congressional review. Qassem Soleimani arrived in Moscow on July 24; the Russian intervention was launched in mid-September.
One needn’t speculate that Obama and Putin actually consulted on the timing: the congressional deadline, after all, was hardly a secret. But the president had abundant reason to fear that any hints of untoward moves on Putin’s part would complicate his effort to ram the nuclear deal through Congress. His congressional critics were already warning about signs of collusion between Russia and Iran. They had balked in April when Putin lifted the hold on Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles promised to Tehran. And they balked again in July, during the concluding stages of the nuclear negotiations, when the Russians insisted that the final deal provide for removing the sanctions on Iran’s ballistic-missile program and conventional arms sales—and the United States conceded both points. If information about Putin’s intent to form an alliance with Iran and Hizballah were now to leak out, it would have strengthened a central criticism of the Iran deal: namely, that by funneling $100-150 billion to the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism, the deal would lead to greater violence and instability in the Middle East.
As long as word of an Iranian-Russian military alliance did not surface, Obama could rely on a campaign of happy talk to sell the nuclear deal with Tehran. Senior administration officials confidently asserted that the agreement was likely to produce a kinder, gentler Iran. “It is our assessment . . . that [the Iranians] are not going to spend the vast majority of the money on guns, most of it will go to butter,” one senior official said. “[W]e believe,” another averred, “that a world in which there is a deal with Iran is much more likely to produce an evolution in Iranian behavior than a world in which there is no deal.” To mollify critics, John Kerry promised that until this hoped-for evolution materialized, the United States would vigorously “push back” against any examples of Iranian “malign” behavior. “[T]here isn’t a challenge in the entire region that we won’t push back against if Iran is involved in it,” the secretary of state swore in testimony before Congress.
In the event, Kerry’s oath would not apply. The challenge took place, in the form of a major Iranian military campaign in Syria conducted hand-in-glove with Russia, and Washington, far from pushing back, sat by and watched.
Were the administration’s solemn promises to push back against Iran also based on a significant measure of self-deception? After all, Obama had always believed that once the nuclear deal was signed, the Russians and the Iranians would begin working with him to stabilize Syria by means of his “managed transition.” For his part, Putin, even as he prepared the way for an armed intervention, seems to have indulged the president in that pet belief. During the second week of August, the White House told the New York Times that the Russians “have appeared to be more open in recent weeks to discussions about replacing Mr. Assad.” Obama announced he was personally buoyed by this news. “[W]hat I have been encouraged by,” he told the CNN host Fareed Zakaria, “is that the Russians are now more interested in discussions around what a political transition . . . would look like inside of Syria.”
In actuality, Putin was just repeating back to the president his own talking points about the necessity of finding a political solution. Did he thereby also lull Obama into believing that even in the event of an open military move, the overarching American interest in a concert system could still be preserved? So what if Russia and Iran were to introduce forces into Syria, the president’s reasoning might have gone; if they were willing to work together with the United States to stabilize the region, an intervention of this kind might even be a net positive.
VI. Putin Speaks
When Putin encounters a conflict like the Syrian civil war, he asks not, “How do we solve it?” but, rather, “How do we exploit it?” It is certainly true that several competing goals drive Russian foreign policy, and that Putin does not conceive of his relations with the United States as a crude zero-sum conflict. About this, Obama has a point. But diminishing America’s power and prestige remains one of Putin’s main goals—a fact that Americans ignore at their peril.
Obama dismisses such concerns with a simple retort: Putin is weak. His base in Syria is already under threat; his economy is stagnant; and his ability to organize a large coalition is limited. When Steve Kroft, on 60 Minutes, suggested that with the Syria intervention Putin was challenging the president’s leadership, Obama responded heatedly: “[I]f you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership.”
Putin is indeed weak. That fact, however, invites a few questions. What use is a partnership with such a weak and reckless actor? Why should the United States tolerate his provocations? Why not exploit his vulnerabilities in order to deter him?
Moreover, suggesting as Obama does that we can tolerate Putin because he is weak is like saying we can ignore rabid dogs because their disease is killing them. Putin’s play in Syria has undermined America’s power and harmed American interests. Any accounting of the damage must include at least the following: the Russian move has strengthened American adversaries like Assad and Iran; it has severely disadvantaged allies like Israel and Turkey, which used to enjoy air superiority in their neighborhoods but now risk war with Russia if and when their forces must defend actively against threats emanating from Syria; it has vastly complicated American options, such as establishing no-fly zones and safe havens; and it requires that any future policy followed by the United States in Syria be coordinated with Moscow. The latest operation has already created tens of thousands of new refugees, and will undoubtedly create tens of thousands more.
By the president’s own reckoning, Putin’s sledgehammer approach to counterterrorism is “a recipe for disaster.” It is making the fight against the Islamic State—a fight in which the men and women of the U.S. armed forces are directly engaged—much more difficult. “Russian policy,” the president said at a press conference in early October, “is driving [the moderate Syrian opposition] underground or creating a situation in which they are de-capacitated, and it’s only strengthening ISIL.”
In addition to all of this damage, Putin has launched a full-on political challenge to American world leadership. Consider his behavior at the United Nations in late September. The UN proceedings took place amid news reports of the Russian military build-up in Syria. On Monday, September 28, Obama and Putin delivered their respective addresses, with the American president speaking first.
In the wake of the passage of the nuclear deal through Congress, Obama had obviously intended his speech to mark a crowning moment, celebrating the agreement itself and heralding the emerging new world order. But Putin’s latest challenge forced him to adjust his approach. What the president delivered instead was an apologia for his rejection of military force as a tool of diplomacy. American military restraint, he argued, was strengthening a rules-based international order that rendered crude power plays like Putin’s Syria move outmoded and self-defeating. “There are those who argue,” he said, “that power is a zero-sum game; that might makes right; that strong states must impose their will on weaker ones; . . . and that in a time of rapid change, order must be imposed by force.” Obama flatly rejected this view. “I stand before you today believing in my core that we, the nations of the world, cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion.”
Even normally sympathetic observers found the president’s speech oddly disconnected from reality. David Rothkopf, the editor of Foreign Policy, summarized it as follows: “Good morning. Cupcakes. Unicorns. Rainbows. Putin is mean. Thank you very much.”
Then came Putin’s address—a sustained indictment of American foreign policy and a justification for his action in Syria. “Do you realize what you’ve done?” he asked. Pointedly accusing Washington of having created the chaos in the Middle East by its policy of promoting democratization, Putin cast Russia’s support for dictators as the antidote to years of disastrous American mismanagement. Even as he was delivering his speech, news was spreading about growing official Iraqi cooperation with the Russians and Iranians. From Baghdad to Beirut, so it seemed, America was taking a back seat to the new Russian-Iranian axis.
Two days later, while the General Assembly was still meeting in New York, the Russian bombers went into action. Yet even after they were in the skies over Syria and had begun attacking forces trained by the CIA, Kerry behaved as if nothing had happened to interfere with business as usual. Not only did he agree to meet with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, at the United Nations, he even appeared with him afterward in a joint press conference. Lavrov, speaking first, stressed the points of agreement between the two men. Kerry did not hesitate to endorse the characterization: “Sergei has described a meeting that . . . we would both concur was a constructive meeting.”
Kerry all but gave a seal of approval to the Russian intervention—exactly as Putin, seasoned by years of consultation with Obama, knew he would. Having studied the American president up close, Putin could be confident that Obama would persist in accommodating him no matter how openly he challenged America’s global leadership. It was as if Obama and Kerry had become bit players in a Russian theater of power.
Still, even Putin may have been surprised by Obama’s passivity in the face of Russian insults. The public unveiling of Moscow’s new alliance with Iran elicited no serious protest from the White House. On the contrary, Obama continued to race toward his original goal: the creation of his concert system. One month after the fiasco at the United Nations, John Kerry would again meet with Sergei Lavrov in Vienna to work together on the latest major international initiative to bring peace to Syria. “I am convinced,” Kerry told reporters, “that today’s meeting was constructive and productive and succeeded in surfacing some ideas, which I am not going to share today but which I hope have a possibility of ultimately changing the dynamic.”
What Kerry had in mind became clear a week later when the Vienna process got under way. The inaugural meeting differed from previous Syria conferences in three notable respects. First, the United States backed even farther away from its demand that Assad step down in a timely fashion; second, it supported the inclusion of Iran in the negotiations; lastly, it excluded, for the time being at least, representatives of the Syrian opposition. Kerry presented these changes as practical procedural developments when in fact they were major changes in American policy, representing a significant shift in the direction of the Russia-Syria-Iran axis—a shift that went entirely unreciprocated.
The next meeting in the Vienna process took place on November 14, the day after the terror attacks in Paris. Standing next to Lavrov, Kerry said that the attacks had “encouraged us today to do even harder work to make progress and to help resolve the crises that we face.” With the strong encouragement of the United States, the attendees in Vienna then deferred to Russian and Iranian demands that they drop any requirement for Assad to step down. Making no mention of the dictator, the latest Vienna plan states instead that “free and fair elections would be held . . . within eighteen months.”
The appearance of the phrase “free and fair elections” in the same sentence as the word “Syria” signals entrance into Fantasyland. For Obama, however, the goal is not so much to arrive at elections as to play for time. The latest Vienna plan allows him to push the adjudication of Assad’s fate to a point after his own departure from office, thus relieving him of any obligation to tangle further with the Russians and Iranians while still assuring allies like the Turks and the Saudis that he has not given up on forcing the Syrian dictator out. Just as he worked with Putin to erase his red line over Assad’s chemical weapons, he has now worked to erase the demand for Assad “to step aside”—while never actually disowning it.
Nor is this the only achievement. After all, the inclusion of Iran itself as a formal diplomatic partner in the Vienna process could be said to mark an early realization of Obama’s overarching vision: a club of nations that, in his firm belief, will change the global dynamic by positioning the United States to manage threats without resort to military power.
Of course, the supposed benefits of this new order are entirely theoretical. In the here and now, the new order leaves America’s allies—both in the Middle East and in Europe—with no choice but to kowtow to Russia (and Iran) as they seek to deal with the urgent threats emanating from Syria.
Consider, for example, the position of François Hollande, the French president. Working together with Riyadh, Paris had long played a role in preventing Obama from openly embracing Russian and Iranian policy in Syria. Whenever the American president moved toward Moscow and Tehran, he would feel a tug at his sleeve as the French reminded him of his 2011 promise to force Assad to step aside.
After the Paris attacks, however, things were different. With Nicolas Sarkozy challenging Hollande’s leadership by calling vocally for an alignment with Moscow against Islamic State; in the face of rising popular demands for immediate action; and with Washington all but mute, the French president was left with no room for maneuver. Within days he was proclaiming the need to form “a single [anti-IS] coalition” and announcing his plan to “meet with President Obama and President Putin to unite our forces and to achieve a result which, at this point, has been put off for far too long.” To his credit, Hollande gamely strove to hold the line, explaining that France was still “resolutely and tirelessly seeking a political solution [in Syria], one that does not include Bashar al-Assad”; but the outreach to Moscow marked a retreat from the established French position.
Nor was the new French attitude lost on the Russians, who pressed home their advantage. Moscow was ready to work with the West against Islamic State, Sergei Lavrov said shortly after Hollande’s speech, but in return the Western powers must “respect Syria’s sovereignty and the prerogatives of the Syrian leadership.” In other words, Russian cooperation came at a price: Western recognition of the inviolability of the Assad regime.
In Washington, the Obama administration raised no objections to France’s slide in the direction of Putin. This ostensibly neutral position worked to the benefit of Moscow—and so did the White House stance toward Turkey after the latter’s air force, on November 24, downed a Russian SU-24 jet on the Syrian border. In public, American officials treated the issue as concerning only the two countries involved. Behind the scenes, however, they blamed Turkey for overreacting. As Turkish-Russian relations plummeted, the administration seized the moment to pile on against its NATO ally, complaining bitterly about Turkey’s failure to close its border with Syria. “The game has changed. Enough is enough. The border needs to be sealed,” a senior American official told the Wall Street Journal.
It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a different approach. For example, the White House might have noted Putin’s pattern of violating the air space of Russia’s neighbors, and identified the primary cause of the present Turkish-Russian discord in Russia’s aggression in Syria. Most important, it might have underlined the vital American interest in this crisis: namely, preserving the unity of NATO. Instead, it signaled to Putin yet another benefit of his intervention in Syria: splitting the Western alliance.
As if to reinforce the point, the White House subtly deflected attention away from the one aspect of Russian policy that most antagonized France, Turkey, and other American allies by whispering to the press that Putin himself was less adamant than he seemed to be on the issue of Assad’s remaining in power. Deft Western diplomacy, the White House suggested, would succeed in peeling Moscow away from Tehran; sooner rather than later, Russia would work with the United States to replace Assad.
A surprisingly large number of journalists and commentators in the United States, Europe, and Israel have repeated these dubious assertions as if they were self-evident strategic truths, ignoring Obama’s long track record of predicting an imminent Russian change of heart on Syria. Those predictions, grounded neither in Syrian realities nor in Putin’s own long record of opposition to insurgencies against established order, especially those supported by Western democracies, have also disregarded the weight of history. Moscow has been allied with Damascus since the 1950s, long before the Assad family ever came to power, and it has operated a naval base in Syria since the 1970s. Deposing the Syrian dictator would call into question the future of that base and, by extension, the future of Russia as a great power. Putin will never dump Assad.
VII. Calling the Tune
In sum, Obama’s headlong support for the Iran nuclear deal and his pursuit more generally of a concert system with Moscow and Tehran have encouraged the rise of a Russian-Iranian military alliance dedicated to diminishing the United States and its allies. His rejection of traditional military deterrence as a legitimate tool of foreign policy has given that alliance a free hand in Syria. Even as Russian policies vastly complicate the fight against IS and offer Putin increased leverage over key American allies, Obama remains captivated by the theory that, in the end, Russia and Iran will come around and cooperate productively with the United States.
The president entered office in 2009 believing in this theory; for seven years he has based his Middle East strategy on it; and nothing that has occurred in the interim has disabused him of the notion. Whenever he has taken an overt step that suggested otherwise—that he was moving toward a harder line in Syria or preparing to counter Russia and Iran—he has engaged in action behind the scenes to undermine his own position. At the same time, he has repeatedly and consistently reassured both Putin and Ali Khamenei that they have nothing to fear from the United States in Syria.
Putin, for his part, understands just how enthralled the president is with his own ideas, and what a godsend they are to Russia. Those ideas protect Putin from retribution even as he openly establishes Russia as a rival to America in the Middle East. His immediate goal is to prop up the Assad regime, but by showing an ability to project force into the area, he has also tipped the entire regional balance in his favor. All Middle East leaders, including those of states traditionally allied with the United States, are striving to establish a productive working relationship with Moscow—and doing so, remarkably, with America’s blessing and encouragement. This leverage, which ensures that Putin will be the most influential actor in deciding the fate of Syria, also means greater influence on all major Middle East questions, to say nothing of the advantages accruing to him in Europe, where he is increasingly seen, despite all the evidence to the contrary, as key to solving the refugee crisis and to diminishing the terrorist threat emanating from the Middle East.
Evidently Putin feels so insulated from American reprisal that he is now comfortable denigrating Obama personally. In his speech to the UN, he openly taunted the president. “[Y]ou are dealing with rough and cruel people, but they’re in no way primitive or silly,” he said. Ostensibly Putin was referring to jihadists, but he might just as well have been talking about himself. “They are just as clever as you are, and you never know who is manipulating whom.”
In the concert to which Barack Obama has invited Vladimir Putin, the weaker power is calling the tune and setting the tempo even as the stronger power, while imagining itself conducting from the podium, struggles to follow the score.