Why Obama and Putin are Both Wrong on Syria

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

President Obama seemed awfully defensive in his speech at the United Nations on Monday. The reason is not far to seek. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has surprised Washington by volunteering to get militarily involved in Syria and by arguing that only by enlisting the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad can Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) be defeated.

Obama is defensive because a) his own plans for confronting Daesh have largely failed, and b) because Putin’s plans for doing so are concrete and involve trying to prop up dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Putin is arguing for a unified push against Daesh by a wide range of countries, and for allying in this effort with the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. He says only such a unified response has a hope of prevailing. He points to Libya as an example of the chaos that occurs in the wake of Washington’s insistence on going around overthrowing governments.

So ironically the Russian Federation and its ex-Communist president is taking a conservative position here, of trying to prop up the status quo, which the US views itself as a radical democratizer a ala Thomas Paine.

Obama, I think, tried to get the Libya comparison out of the way by apologizing for the way NATO abandoned that country after the successful intervention of 2011. He said,

In such efforts the United States will always do our part. We will do so, mindful of the lessons of the past. Not just the lessons of Iraq but also the example of Libya, where he joined an international coalition under a U.N. mandate to prevent a slaughter. Even as we helped the Libyan people bring an end to the reign of a tyrant, our coalition could have and should have done more to fill a vacuum left behind. We are grateful to the United Nations for its efforts to forge a unity government. We will help any legitimate Libyan government as it works to bring the country together. But we also have to recognize that we must work more effectively in the future as an international community to build capacity for states that are in distress before they collapse.

Obama is trying to say that the original sin was not intervention or the overthrow of a dictator but the absolute neglect of Libya in the aftermath.

By analogy, he is saying that a joint effort to remove Bashar al-Assad could work out fine if all the participating countries join together in rebuilding the Syrian army and state in the aftermath.

Obama is a smart man but this plan is completely unworkable. Daesh in Syria would likely take advantage of the fall of the Baath to Western forces, who, staying in the skies above Syria, could no more take them on efficiently then than they can do now.

Obama offered to work with Russia against Daesh, which has allied with the Baath regime of Al-Assad, but said, that “there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo.” This statement is true in both international law and in everyday practice. Al-Assad is too tainted by mass murder to continue as president. And, the third or so of his population who have seceded from his rule are heavily armed and don’t want him coming back.

Obama indicted al-Assad:

Let’s remember how this started. Assad reacted to peaceful protests by escalating repression and killing that in turn created the environment for the current strife. And so Assad and his allies can’t simply pacify the broad majority of a population who have been brutalized by chemical weapons and indiscriminate bombing.

Confirming what many of us have long suspected, that Obama is a fan of the Realists in political Science, he added, “Yes, realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and stomp out ISIL. But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad into a new leader and an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to the chaos so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild.”

Obama blamed al-Assad for the rise of Daesh, omitting mention of American responsibility via the destruction of Iraq.

How hopeless the situation is in Syria is clear from the speech of Vladimir Putin

Putin complained that the problems in Syria come from US and its allies back so-called moderate rebels, who the moment they can run off to join Daesh: “And now, the ranks of radicals are being joined by the members of the so-called moderate Syrian opposition supported by the Western countries. First, they are armed and trained and then they defect to the so-called Islamic State.”

Putin then went in for some conspiracy thinking, blaming the US and the West for creating Daesh (they did not) to overthrow secular regimes (which they don’t want to do). “Besides, the Islamic State itself did not just come from nowhere. It was also initially forged as a tool against undesirable secular regimes.”

Putin’s own fears about the possible spread of Daesh to Russian provinces such as Chechniya is palpable: “Having established a foothold in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has begun actively expanding to other regions. It is seeking dominance in the Islamic world. And not only there, and its plans go further than that. The situation is more than dangerous.”

Putin is alarmed in a way that Obama really never has been by Daesh. For the US security establishment, Daesh is bad but not near or all that big or all that urgent. The US approach to Daesh has seldom gone beyond aerial containment. Putin begs to differ.

The Russian president denounced the hypocrisy of denouncing terrorism but de facto supporting Salafi fighters in Syria.

Putin then got to his point:

“We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face. We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurds (ph) militias are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.”

But actually during the past two years long periods of time have passed in which the al-Assad regime seldom militarily engaged Daesh, leaving it to prey opportunistically on the other rebel groups. You couldn’t call that valiant.

So Obama wants al-Assad to stand down as a prerequisite for effective US action against Daesh in Syria (a few air sorties and even fewer air strikes are ineffectual). Putin thinks al-Assad is key to defeating Daesh and that everyone should ally with Damascus.

Putin is blind to the ways that al-Assad and his military brutality is prolonging the civil war. Backing his genocidal policies will just perpetuate that war. The Guardian says he showed more flexibility after his speech: “However, Putin showed more flexibility than he had in his general assembly speech, acknowledging that political reform in Damascus could be part of a solution, but indicated that Assad would be a willing participant in that change.”

Some sort of synthesis of the Putin and Obama plans is likely to emerge. Obama’s romance with drones and aerial bombardment blinds him to the poor progress the US has made against Daesh using those tools. His search for “moderate” forces to back seems also in Syria to be a pipe dream. If Putin ties himself too closely to the sinking ship of Bashar, he will go down with it.

As Obama said, though, Syria policy-making is the most complex problem the US has faced in over a decade.


Related video:

Reuters: “Obama and Putin share a toast at the UN.”

31 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    The Syrian war is originally a vehicle of the US, Israelis and Saudis to cut the supply lines to Hizb Allah through Syria.

    The Israelis want to remove a heavily armed enemy defending Southern Lebanon from their imperialist depradations.

    The Saudis want to reinstall a puppet government to allow their reinstatement of their playground and investment vehicle and money laundering centre.

    The Americans do whatever the Israelis tell themto do.

    If Putin lands the couple of Infantry divisions required to eliminate ISIS and does so then the political part follows.

    The israelis have issued licences for oil and gas exploration on Syrian territory and are supporting Al Qaeda militarily and medically on the sothern front so the endgame contains a danger that Russian forces will fire on Israeli forces or alternatively that they will tangle with the NATO member Turkey and its forces triggering Article 5.

    Still, On balance Russian forces clearing out ISIS and the failed Western Backed Fantasy Syrian Army (FSA) will be a good thing.

    A Russian Air Defence Umbrella will stop the Israeli overflights of Lebanon attacs on Gaza and attacks on Hizballah weapons supplies in Syria which can only be a blessing

  2. “blaming the US and the West for creating Daesh (they did not) to overthrow secular regimes (which they don’t want to do).”

    But the US did in effect create AlQaeda to overthrow the secular USSR-backed govt of Afghanistan, overthrew the secular Baathist regime in Iraq, overthrew the secular Qaddafi in Libya, and has in effect supported Isis ally AlQaeda in Syria to overthrow the relatively-secular Baathist Assad.

    • Well, according to Osama bin Laden, the founder of al Qaeda, his organization was founded in the mid 90’s as a direct response to the US stationing troops and building bases in Saudi Arabia before and during the first Gulf War, not because of US arming rebels in Afghanistan. And the wars in both Libya and Syria began before US involvement because of the repressive policies of the dictators in those countries. So, while the US has screwed up a lot, your total indictment is not a fair one.

      • Al-Qaeda was formed in the 1980s in Afghanistan when Bin Laden was allied with the US-backed Afghan Mujahidin. It was originally called Maktab al-Khidmat or Office of Services, to provide medical and other aid to the holy warriors against godless Communism.

        • I would beg to differ. The organization formed in the 80’s was more the father of the Taliban than the father of al Qaeda. The mujahadeen in Afghanistan during the war against USSR as aimed solely at ridding the country of the Soviet invaders. Likewise, the Taliban never had an internationalist outlook, but looked only to governing Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, by comparison was transnational from its beginning and did not seek to form a government, but was aimed solely at combating what it saw as Western imperialism in the Middle East, specifically in the Holy Lands of the Muslim religion. It’s method of achieving that was through terrorism while the mujahadeen in Afghanistan were a guerrilla army and more like a military army. The only real link between the two was that Osama bin Laden was a somewhat important figure in the mujahadeen while he was the foremost figure in the founding of al Qaeda.

        • Guerilla forces nearly always practice terrorism to some degree–the Soviets had far greater firepower and killed more people during the 80’s but it’s silly to pretend the mujahideen fought without terrorist tactics–we see what they did in the 90’s, I agree with Gary’s other points in this thread, but the use of ” terrorism” in an inconsistent manner bugs me. The Al Qaeda distinction is, as you said, their interest in committing terrorism outside Afghanistan, not the use of terrorism itself.

  3. Putin has never claimed long-term dedication to the survival of al-Assad as President of Syria. However, surely it is sensible to use his existing military infrastructure to resolve the Daesh priority. Once Daesh is defeated, there need be no further support offered him. That is Realpolitik, moral and ideological considerations can be left until later. Putin would hardly announce such a plan now as that would defeat it. Obama must realise this since it is the sort of thing the US does in its sleep. No, Obama is more concerned about who will follow al-Assad and wants to ensure the odds heavily favour US interests. Absent an outcome promising for ongoing US interests Obama appears to prefer bombing the country into another neutralised wasteland run by militias, the lesser, presumably, of two evils. No doubt Putin has a similar interest in Syria’s future geopolitical alignment but the proximity of jihadist terrorism is more urgent to Russia than the US. Although they exchange barbs over al-Assad, he is not personally what their deeper differences are about.

    • It is Assad who has pretty much bombed Syria into a vast wasteland. US attacks are mere pinpricks by comparison. I am often very critical of US policy, but it needs to be balanced and analytical criticism. I think Obama half heartedly pursued this policy of arming moderates, which is a sham and a farce, because of political pressure. I think he realizes that there are no good solutions to this problem and I doubt he favors the run by militias solution that you posit. I believe Obama is a true realist and, as such, realizes that Syria is of no major interest to the US and he is more concerned about the humanitarian issue.

  4. Bush/Cheney/ Rumsfield & Paul Bremer & other Neo-cons need to concretly be linked to the rise of ISIS. They bullheaded us into the war in Iraq & “magically”
    Dismissed the entire Sunni lead Iraqi military.

    This professional fighting force has come back to form the core of ISIS

  5. Dr. Cole,

    General Wes Clark even said the Syria was on the US’s list of “regime change” targets, and this was before the civil war started. War criminal and former Israel ambassador Michael Oren said that they (Israel) would prefer to have radical Sunnis in charge in Syria than radical Shias (which he means an ally of Hezbollah who helps defend South Lebanon). The Syrian Civil War was instigated by the US and their allies (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey). The US helped Saudi Arabia with covert operations in Syria before the civil war.

    To be sure, Assad has committed serious crimes including use of chemical weapons (however, there are reports that Assad did not actually use Sarin). But the US should help the state of Syria (not necessarily Assad) defeat ISIS. There were reports that in 2012, Putin offered a peace deal which included Assad stepping aside, but the US, Britain, and France refused. The best thing to do now is to work with Russia and Iran to find a way to keep the Syrian state and Army intact and have Assad step down so that they can work together to defeat ISIS.

    It is also worth noting that Putin’s persecution of Chechnya is a significant component of the creation of ISIS, so he is not blameless himself.

  6. We could have started the process to end this in 2012, but Western Imperialism dictates that the suffering of the Syrians is secondary.

    link to theguardian.com

    From the article:

    Ahtisaari held talks with envoys from the five permanent members of the UN security council in February 2012. He said that during those discussions, the Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, laid out a three-point plan, which included a proposal for Assad to cede power at some point after peace talks had started between the regime and the opposition.

    But he said that the US, Britain and France were so convinced that the Syrian dictator was about to fall, they ignored the proposal.

    “It was an opportunity lost in 2012,” Ahtisaari said in an interview.

  7. It’s amazing that the media blather on and on about he refugee crisis without ever ID’ing the US as having created the problem and being responsible for it . .
    All the neo-cons and their enablers should take Syrian refugee families into their homes.

  8. Professor Cole,

    The issue of Syrian Army not as actively engaging ISIS has a clear explanation: all the strategic areas that Assad/Hezbollah care about are outside the control of ISIS and are fought over by Al-Nusra and other groups. When ISIS pushed its way to areas controlled by the Syrian army, the battles were fierce and outcome bloody. Assad is being a pragmatic dictator in the way he uses his limited military power. Given that still the majority of Syrian army fighters are Sunnis, it is highly presumptuous to state that if elections were held today, Assad would be ousted. He is still popular the Sunni merchant class and minorities.

  9. Sumbal Naqi

    . Removing Assad guarantees Syria will fall to ISIS. ISIS will kill all Alawites, Shia n moderates. Is that what the West wants?

  10. Sumbal Naqi

    . Regime change by West whether in Afgh, Syria Iraq, Libya,does not work.Up to people of Syria whether they want Assad, not the West

  11. In such efforts the United States will always do our part. We will do so, mindful of the lessons of the past. Not just the lessons of Iraq but also the example of Libya, where he (we?) joined an international coalition under a U.N. mandate to prevent a slaughter. Even as we helped the Libyan people bring an end to the reign of a tyrant, our coalition could have and should have done more to fill a vacuum left behind.

    What lessons did Obama and his neocon advisers learn from Libya?

    We are grateful to the United Nations for its efforts to forge a unity government.

    Lotsa luck on the one. You’ll need it.

    We will help any legitimate Libyan government as it works to bring the country together.

    A Libyan government will be deemed legitimate if it is a vassal state of the Empire.

    But we also have to recognize that we must work more effectively in the future as an international community to build capacity for states that are in distress before they collapse.

    As in Ukraine?

  12. Sometimes there are problems so severe and messed up that no good, realistic, solutions are available. I believe Syria is one of those. Whatever results, I doubt it will be good for the Syrian people.

  13. Professor Cole’s thumbnail sketch of the history of the conflict does much to illuminate the nature of the dilemma: we need a unified Syria. Although Assad is the most likely candidate for being the leader of such a unified state, because of his brutality, the rebel factions would never submit to his rule. Conflict theory teaches us that this is one of the worst scenarios in terms of human suffering—a stalemate in which neither side can obtain a decisive victory. What to do? Come down on the side of Assad against the rebels with overwhelming force. Make it clear they have no chance and will be obliterated if necessary. And if necessary, destroy a few rebel cities as we did with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It quickly brought peace (of a sorts) to Japan. I imagine it would still work here. And in the end, it just might “save lives.” That’s what we all care about. No?

  14. One possible outcome is that Syria is partitioned, the Assad regime withdraws to an Alawite enclave on the coast around Latakia, and Russia keeps its naval base at Tartus.

  15. As Ronald Reagan once said..in so many words …if our world was threatened by an outside source (say aliens) wouldn’t we all join together and fight…
    Obama must say his thing
    Putin must say his
    AND here we go.

  16. From the outset, US policy on Syria had very limited chance of success, given the political constraints the Obama administration was experiencing: (1) US public apprehension for significant military intervention and; (2) The sensitive P5+1 negotiations were taking place and heavier US involvement – than what was proposed – in Syria could play into the hands of the Iranian hardliners, who were looking for opportunities to scuttle the impending agreement. Meanwhile, Russia re-inserted itself as a more active player to secure a diplomatic agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons and play a more muscular role- yet to be tested – against Daesh, by exploiting the US realignment of offshore balancing via Tehran. It’s still too early to assume whether this geo-political strategy will generate relative stabilisation, but its consequences of human tragedy can be felt today.

  17. The US is doing anything it can to stay relevant, kind of flailing about like a drunken, powerful bully. That means pretty much supporting its Saudi and Israeli allies, and to a lesser extent Egypt.

    They’re clueless in Syria, and almost that bad in Iraq,except there’s a better delineation of ‘bad’ guys and ‘good’ guys there. What really gets me about Iraq is that Obama talks about it just happening and not we were the culpits nor that there needs to be some accountability. Every time I hear him talk about violations of international law, like in Ukraine, I have to laugh and wonder if he really believes it himself. As Putin alluded to in 60 Minutes this exceptionalism is a crock and needs to be countered at every turn.

  18. “NATO abandoned that country after the successful intervention of 2011.”
    Unbeknown to anybody but me, they had to, the rebel did not want NATO anymore then they wanted Gaddafi, Nato would of had to put troops on the ground and feed the meat grinder, much like Benghazi, Afghanistan, Iraq or Lebanon. So the score was settled (Mission accomplished) and on to Damascus.
    Yes, it is not a nice world. But it has been the nicest for a long while. Used to be revolutionaries earned their pedigree and credentials under torture and in jail and rabble rouser were piled like a mound.

  19. Putin is more nearly right on Syria than Obama is. Obama still supports and encourages those who want Assad overthrown. Putin recognizes that the only way to bring peace to Syria is for one side to exterminate the fighting ability of every other side. Putin has decided that the Secularist Dictatorship side of Assad is a preferable victor to the jihadist side of ISIS, al Nusra, etc. And I agree.

    The proper course was stated by a commenter above . . . give the Assad side such overwhelming support that it can compel all other sides to stop fighting or else exterminate all other sides’ fighting forces and persons from physical existence.

    By the way, it is a pro-rebel lie to say that Assad used sarin gas in that attack near Damascus. Elements of the rebels were the ones who used that kitchen-sarin in order to get Assad blamed for it. There has been abundant material written about that basic fact on Colonel Lang’s blog Sic Semper Tyrannis and elsewhere.

  20. Could it be that the “West” doesn’t see ISIL as a big deal because they may have some interest in allowing ISIL to grow strong enough to stir up some real trouble along Russia’s southern border? Think about it. Thousands of Russians have joined the fight alongside ISIL (which is one of the reasons why Putin is probably so alarmed). Should those fighters somehow find their way back they could spark an insurgency causing turmoil within Russia itself (suicide bombs and the like). Should such an event occur it could shake the Russian’s electorates confidence in Putin and maybe even make Russia more amiable to Washington’s designs in Ukraine.

  21. Any nation which fights two enemies simultaneously has to decide which one has to be dealt with first. Would you judge America’s efforts in 1942 to concentrate on Japan rather than genocidal Nazi Germany as less than valiant?

  22. “Putin is blind to the ways that al-Assad and his military brutality is prolonging the civil war. Backing his genocidal policies will just perpetuate that war.”
    Anyone backing any side of this conflict is guilty of prolonging and perpetuating this war. Is the West blind to their role in prolonging the war? No, they are doing it with their eyes open, as is Putin. By prolonging the war they delay an unfavorable end. The only question worth considering is, what is the path of least harm and of greatest benefit to the greatest number of people? Let’s not engage in accusations that are equally applicable to “our” own actions.

  23. The U.S. and the West lack all credibility at this point (Occam’s Razor has been broken by their arguments, explanations, and justifications directly and in and through the media too many times), this is no doubt why even characteristically non-paranoid intellectuals such as the philosopher Slavoj Zizek have recently voiced comments such as this: “The first thing is to recall that most of refugees come from the “failed states”—where public authority is more or less inoperative, at least in large regions—Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Congo, etc. This disintegration of state power is not a local phenomenon but a result of international economy and politics—in some cases, like Libya and Iraq, a direct outcome of Western intervention. It is clear that the rise of these “failed states” is not just an unintended misfortune but also one of the ways the great powers exert their economic colonialism.”

    This colonialism seems to consist, at this point in the context of the Middle East, in the vying for control of natural resources so that alternative centers of geopolitical power, such as Russia and China, do not have even a share of such resources in the Middle East and the rest of Eurasia more generally. Nearly as important, and inextricable with the latter goal, is the U.S.’s increasing reliance on arms manufacturing (and security and defense in general) as a non-offshorable component of its economy and its citizens’ employment; constant war, alimented by the monies and commodities of wealthy Arab regions, does impact poorly on the long term growth prospects of such vital and eternally “nationalist” economic sectors.

    • Correction to previous comment: “does not impact poorly on the long term growth prospects of such vital and eternally “nationalist” economic sectors.”

  24. Although the USA state bears a large responsibility in the emergence of ISIS, as Professor Cole has said, to say that USA created ISIS, as some of his detractors are saying, is as logical as to blame the URSS for creating the Taliban when it invaded Afghanistan. In fact, the USA bears more direct responsibility in creating the Taliban than in creating ISIS, and Russia is not blameless in the creating ISIS after destroying Chechnya and not wanting a more resolute diplomatic solution to war in Syria,

  25. it is stunning for my president to go to the U.N. and argue that the only mistake the west made with Libya was it didn’t give it the full Iraq treatment.

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