Russia’s incursion into Syria and its expanding influence throughout the Middle East has offered the Obama administration something it has sought since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011: a way to stay in the background.
“If you think the Obama administration is upset at recent events in Syria, you have it wrong,” Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said on Twitter last week.
“Embarrassed? Yes, but it never wanted to lead.”
On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the stage at the UN General Assembly in New York for the first time in a decade, where he called for a “genuinely broad alliance against terrorism, just like the one against Hitler.”
Putin also used the speech to reiterate Russia’s support for the Syrian government and emphasise how US intervention in the Middle East had destabilized the region.
Russia has been building up its military presence in Syria since late August in an effort to keep the embattled Assad regime from being overthrown by the many rebel groups gaining territory within Syria.
In his own speech before the UN,
Obama said that ultimately
Assad should not remain in place. But he did advocate a “managed transition” from Assad to a new leader, which is a compromise that Russia and Iran — which are doubling down on propping up Assad — will certainly welcome as the military stalemate continues.
“If the Russians had someone else they could propose that would guarantee the survival of the regime as it is now, they would have done so already.” Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider.
“The whole point of Putin’s intervention is to move Obama towards accepting Assad staying, which has, for the most part, already been won,” Badran said.
“Putin has now given Obama the perfect cover to do nothing about Assad.”
‘Obama has used Putin as a foil’
Barack Obama’s signature foreign-policy achievement — a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran — was finalised in July after more than a decade of coercive diplomacy and 20 months of gruelling negotiations.
During talks it became clear that the Obama administration’s determination to secure a nuclear deal with Iran most likely informed its decision to refrain from intervening in Syria, which Obama saw as an Iranian sphere of influence, Badran told Business Insider in July.
And as The New York Times reported in 2013, Obama seemed disinterested in the subject of Syria “even as the debate about arming the rebels took on a new urgency.”
“Mr. Obama rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings. But current and former officials said his body language was telling: he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.”
Haunted by the war in Iraq and the disastrous campaign in Libya, and wary of mission creep, Obama has always been “deeply ambivalent” — and, as a result, deliberately ambiguous — on the subject of Assad’s removal, and Russia has taken notice, according to Badran.
“Russia has never been too worried about Obama accepting a continued role for Assad, because it is clear that Obama was never comfortable with Assad leaving,” Badran said.
As Badran sees it, the president — knowing that Tehran could “precipitate a crisis that would corner the White House,” derail negotiations, and sabotage any hope for an opening with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — never had any intention of intervening against Assad, which may be why Obama agreed so quickly when Russia offered to oversee the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons in September 2013.
“Obama has used Putin as a foil since day one,” Badran said. “He’s just been moving the goal post incrementally.”
‘Reading from the same playbook’
So far, Obama has done little to counter Russia’s expanding political influence in the region. With the help of Iran’s cash flow and proxy militias, Putin has given a new lifeline to Assad, who has lost control over more than a third of his country since 2011.
Assad is already reaping the benefits of Russia’s intervention and coordination with Iran: Western leaders — including British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and US Secretary of State John Kerry — have become increasingly accepting of Russia’s assertion that the jihadists in Syria can only be defeated if Assad remains in power, at least in the short-term.
“It will be very difficult to push Assad out now,” Ayham Kamel, director of the MENA program at Eurasia Group, told Business Insider. “Germany, the UK, and France have become openly accepting of his role in the transition.”
“Russia’s incursion has changed the parameters of what’s possible,” Kamel added.
Initially, the US moved to block the buildup by asking countries such as Greece, Bulgaria, and Iraq to shut their airspace to Russian transport planes. While Greece and Bulgaria complied, Iraq did not, going so far as to shut the US out entirely and strike a deal with Russia, Iran, and Syria to begin sharing “security and intelligence” information about ISIS.
During a one-on-one meeting on Monday, Putin reportedly asked Obama to join Russia’s Baghdad-based intelligence-sharing coalition that includes Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
“What the Russians have done is a clever move,” Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, told AFP on Monday.
“It has shifted the balance again, helped buy Assad some time, made the Russians look important, put the Americans on the defensive, and all without actually changing much on the ground.”
The Washington Post’s Liz Sly recently reported that Russia’s activity in Syria has all but upended three years of US policy planning on Syria, derailing Washington’s hope that Iran and the US would ultimately find some common ground.
But ultimately, the administration may not be too upset about it: By forcefully pushing himself to the forefront of the Syrian quagmire, Putin has finally taken the weight of addressing “the Assad problem” off of Obama’s shoulders.
“This gives Obama the opportunity to say ‘we have to rethink’ our priorities in Syria,” Badran noted.
“Play for time, and let the dynamics of an ever worsening situation improve your position diplomatically. In a way, Obama and Assad are reading from the same playbook.”
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