It became a tradition: After New York and Antalya, the U.S. and Russia met again “on the sidelines” of the large international summit — this time in Paris. Obama and Putin conversed for some 30 minutes about Syria, Turkey and Ukraine.
Behind our Backs
The American president expressed his condolences in connection with the death of two Russian military servicemen and urged Russia to avoid escalating the conflict. Obama reiterated that Syrian President Assad must resign during the course of the country’s political transformation. Secondly, sanctions against Russia will only be reconsidered in the case the Minsk Accords are completely implemented. Was the meeting really worth it to simply hear this message repeated? Vladimir Putin, for his part, announced in a press conference that the presidents discussed which organizations in Syria should be considered as terrorist groups and which are “constructive opposition.” The photograph of the two presidents shaking hands, which was shared across the whole world, speaks for itself: Putin and Obama aren’t looking each other in the eye. Observers noted that, yet again, no kind of “breakthrough” was reached.
‘A Mixed Picture’
Giving his opinion on Russia’s actions in Syria, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes called it a “mixed picture.” The U.S. recognizes that in the past week, the Russian air force undertook more strikes against the terrorists of the Islamic State [a terrorist organization that is banned in Russia — Novaya Gazeta editor’s note]. However, according to official data, Russian bombers’ main targets remained, as before, the Syrian opposition groups considered to be moderates.
Putin has accused the Turkish government of buying contraband oil from Islamic State group fighters. However, Obama’s administration has not only insisted that Assad’s regime is buying oil from terrorists, but has undertaken sanctions against George Haswani, a Syrian businessman who, in fact, had double-citizenship with Russia. The U.S. secretary of the treasury accused the businessman and his company HESCO Engineering and Construction Co. of acting as a middleman between Assad’s government and the Islamic State group for the buying and selling of oil. The EU added Haswani to its blacklist in March. The Russian Financial Alliance Bank also ended up on the U.S. Department of Justice’s sanctions list, as it is associated with Mudalal Khuri, the chairman of the bank’s board of directors, as well as the president of the international chess federation Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who owns shares in the credit organization.
Put the Border on Lockdown
On Tuesday, while meeting with Turkish President Erdogan, Obama expressed his support for “Turkey’s right to defend itself and its air space.” Erdogan lamented that opposition groups in Syria have become the targets of Russian airstrikes, including Syrian Turkmen. According to Erdogan, regions where Islamic State fighters don’t even operate are undergoing “constant” bombardment. However, Obama, referring to Atlantic solidarity with its NATO ally, made it clear that Washington expects Ankara to put a much stronger effort into the war against the Islamic State group.
The day before the Paris summit, the U.S. presidential administration called on Ankara to establish control over the almost 60 mile border area with Syria, across which thousands of Islamic State foreign recruits have managed to penetrate — both from Syria to Europe and back. The Pentagon has established that the operation to “close the border” will require no fewer than 30,000 military personnel with artillery and armored vehicle support. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Turkish side considers the American figures to be an “overestimation.” In return for this effort, Ankara wants the West to supply financial aid in order to solve the problem of 2.2 million Syrian refugees and for their allies to establish a “security zone” in Syria. Although the U.S. doesn’t have any objections to the first point, setting up a “security zone,” including a no-fly zone, seem to the White House and the Pentagon to be an overreach, a gamble. On principle, the U.S. and Turkey are in agreement. Their plan involves a ground operation carried out by Syrian opposition and Turkmen groups; Washington is ready to begin carrying out bombings missions from the border southward. However, while Obama was mulling things over, Russia stepped in. Now, Russia is bombing this zone. As the Wall Street Journal reports, the situation on the battlefield is reminiscent of chaos. The groups of Syrian Turkmen have moved south of Aleppo.
After the terrorist attacks in Paris, the word from Washington was that completely closing down the 60 mile border was an unprecedented and clear necessity. “The game has changed. Enough is enough! The border needs to be sealed,” announced a high-ranking American official. “Turkey is determined to clean Daesh from the 98 kilometers of border between Kilis and Jarabulus,” a senior Turkish government official said as cited by the Wall Street Journal. “There is no need to receive any kind of warning or advice from anyone, including our U.S. partners.”
The White House has cited the example of the Syrian Kurds, who have blocked the area from the eastern bank of the river Euphrates to the border with Iraq. This upsets Ankara, as it fears that Washington will begin arming the Syrian Kurds.
Who Should be the Commander?
In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela compares great leaders to shepherds: “A leader … is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” This is the course that the American administration undertook in Libya and what it is trying to repeat again in Syria. In 2011, after the removal of Muammar Gaddafi from power, Barack Obama announced in the White House Rose Garden: “Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives…” This action by the White House was supported even by Obama’s sworn enemies — the Republicans. However, when the American ambassador was killed by Islamists in Benghazi, many serious questions arose, and congressional legislators began to question Hillary Clinton over the idea that American arms had been supplied to Libyan moderate opposition forces — including al-Qaida. Suddenly, the Libya success story came under scrutiny.
Regarding Syria, in general the administration has nothing to boast about. The course that was chosen by the president — airstrikes, measured support of the opposition — has not only been criticized by the Republicans, but also by many Democrats, who are worried that the electorate’s displeasure with the president’s foreign policy will lead to undesirable results for the party in the next presidential and congressional elections. As critics of Obama have noted, during the time of the allied bombing efforts, the Islamic State group only became stronger, as did Russia’s role in the region.
According to the statistics that were posted on the U.S. Department of Defense website, during the course of Operation Inherent Resolve, members of the coalition undertook 8289 airstrikes (as of Nov. 19, 2015): 5432 in Iraq and 2857 in Syria. Of these, the lion’s share were undertaken by the U.S.: 6471. The losses on the Islamic State group’s side are as follows: 129 tanks, 365 infantry fighting vehicles, 260 oil facilities and 4517 buildings. The cost of the operation — $5 billion (from Aug. 8, 2014 to Oct. 31, 2015), with an average cost of $11 million a day.
Obama not long ago sent 50 members of the U.S. Army Special Forces to the north of Syria in support of the moderate opposition. But that’s it. Pentagon Chief Ashton Carter says that there is no talk of sending in ground troops. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American electorate does not want the country’s military to again be embroiled in a massive conflict.
The most “radical” plan has been offered by two Republican senators: John McCain and Lindsey Graham. They call for 20,000 soldiers to be deployed: 10,000 each for Iraq and Syria, respectively. According to McCain’s plan, 10,000 Americans need to be put forth in Syria in support of a 100,000 strong military force that will be composed of soldiers from Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other countries, including European forces.
As well-known American political scientist Fareed Zakaria has noted, more than 3,500 American soldiers are already involved in operations in Iraq and Syria. “… I believe that Obama will keep the U.S. intervention in Syria small and limited. But he will leave his successor with a terrible dilemma in just the way that the Kennedy administration left Lyndon Johnson. The next U.S. president will face the stark reality that America’s involvement in Syria will not have resolved matters. But the U.S. government will have made commitments, sent troops, spent billions and lost lives in that conflict,” concludes the editor of Newsweek, international and CNN host Fareed Zakaria.
The ideal option would be that the Middle East’s problems would be resolved by local actors. However, under America’s leadership, which will attempt to lead from the rear, Obama will not succeed.