4 years ago1,000+ Views
As the situation in the Middle East heats up, I find myself increasingly turning away from the papers and towards the likes of Chatham House. The largely un-biased well-researched content is written by researchers rather than journalists and thus offers much greater clarity on these evermore complicated issues. Recently, associate fellow Dr Christopher Phillips published an article entitled "Obama : Realistic or rudderless on Syria?" US airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq this month have inevitably revived the long-running debate over Obama's Syria policy, especially in light of the murder of US journalist James Foley. Aside from the usual political point scoring, Obama's stance on Syria will be the defining point of his term as President of the US. Those who criticise Obama's Syria policy are not just the normal neo-cons, but also many who have served the administration, including the former ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford and former special advisor for transition in Syria, Fred Hof who said Obama's Syria policy showed "no evidence of an overall strategy". Obama has been painted as aloof, taking advice only from those who support his opinion while choosing to ignore the advise of those who council caution. By mid-2011, Obama was convinced, as were most advisers and the state department, that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad would be swept away by the Arab Spring, and so publically called on him to step down. Then-CIA director David Petraeus drew up a plan to arm and train the secular rebel militias but Obama refused. Instead, other actors - notably Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and a host of private donors from the Gulf - armed the rebels, often encouraging Islamist leaning fighters. This weakened the secularists, diminished US influence over the rebels, and created the vacuum that Hilary Clinton has since claimed that IS has filled. bama then exacerbated matters by backing away from a proposed airstrike of Syria in August 2013 after Assad had crossed Obama’s self-declared 'red line' of using chemical weapons. By accepting a Russian plan that removed Assad’s WMD peacefully, Obama showed a caution that emboldened Assad and further convinced the armed rebels that Washington was not coming to help, accelerating the attraction of radicals like IS. However, Obama’s supporters who view his policies as realistic refute this view. While they accept that the White House made errors, notably the assumption that Assad would fall quickly, since then it has responded intelligently. The rebels - who Obama himself characterises as 'former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth' - would never have defeated a well-armed state backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Any major armaments plan would likely have sucked the US further into an unwinnable conflict. Recognising that the US has never held much sway in Syria, unlike Egypt and Iraq, Obama has instead sought to contain the conflict’s fallout. If read in this way, his policies have been relatively successful. Obama has acted when he deems US interests are threatened, and when he believes he can actually achieve a positive result. The rebels have received enough support to survive, including a recent proposed extra $500 million in training and equipment, but not enough to drag the US in further. From this perspective, the chemical weapons red line policy actually worked. Obama, who has historically opposed WMD proliferation, succeeded in using the threat of force to remove chemical weapons from the conflict. At the heart of the debate are two contrasting worldviews. The ‘realistic’ camp is conscious of the limits on US Middle East policy, still reeling from George W Bush’s failed attempts to remake the region at huge costs in blood and treasure. This has prompted a narrow reading of US priorities and interests, and Syria does not qualify. They would reject the pejorative ‘declinist’ label, but broadly agree with the idea of an increasingly unstable and dangerous multi-polar world and favour offshore balancing over direct intervention. They may question whether any single ‘grand strategy’ is even possible. In contrast, the ‘rudderless’ camp draws from a US national security establishment that, according to Michael Glennon is, 'still committed to trying to run the world'. While they also reject the grand ambitions of Bush, their view of US national interests is much wider. Intervention in Syria is a way of landing a blow to Iran, supporting long-term regional allies and, more recently, defeating the regional jihadist ambitions of IS.