Does Obama have a Syria Strategy? Putin Does.

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

In his “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday President Obama made some remarks on Syria, but do they add up to a policy?

Obama said:

1. He is giving up on a Pentagon plan to train thousands of “moderate” Syrian fighters to take on Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). He admits that the rebels only really want to fight al-Assad and his regime. Obama did not admit that there are very few moderates left who hold any substantial territory. The most effective fighters have been the extremists, Daesh and its rival, al-Qaeda in Syria (the Support Front). Many former Free Syria Army units, who really were moderate, have by now joined or allied with these two.

2. He will continue to bomb Daesh targets in Syria, even though these aerial raids appear to have produced no results.

3. He will not escalate the US military involvement in Syria.

4. His hope is to give enough support to the “moderate rebels” that they can in turn put pressure on the regime and Putin to make Bashar al-Assad step down. (But since he’s not training rebels any more and is just bombing Daesh, how would this result be achieved).

I have long held that Obama is simply trying to contain Daesh in Syria and Iraq, but that nothing he is doing will have the effect of rolling it back. Since Daesh is an enemy of the al-Assad regime, for Obama to contain and weaken it willy-nilly helps al-Assad. This outcome is not the one Obama says he wants, but it is an outcome impossible to avoid.

The place the rebels allied with al-Qaeda have made the big advances in recent months is the north west province of Idlib. Most of the province fell to the “Army of Conquest,” which groups hard line Salafis like the Freemen of Syria (Ahrar al-Sham) with the Support Front al-Qaeda forces. The Support Front reports directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks on the US. With Idlib, the “Army of Conquest” can hope to move against Latakia to its west, Syria’s major port, on which the regime depends for survival.

I think that Obama can’t decently get involved in Idlib precisely because the victorious forces there are essentially al-Qaeda-led. (There are also remnants of small FSA groups in Idlib but frankly each just has a few villages and in the aggregate they don’t amount to all that much.) So the US is irrelevant to the major military development on the ground in Syria in the past year!

In contrast, Putin knows what he wants and has an idea about how to achieve it.

He is giving air support with helicopter gunships and SU-35 fighter jets to the Syrian Arab Army, Hizbullah guerrillas who have joined the fight in northern Hama and southern Idlib, and Iranian special ops forces.

And, there are glimmers of some success. The Syrian Arab Army has taken back several villages north of Hama, with an eye toward an eventual campaign to expel Daesh from Idlib.

The combination of aerial support and local on the ground forces worked for NATO in the former Yugoslava (Clinton got the Serbs to leave the Kosovars alone that way). It also worked for the US in Afghanistan. In the long run Russia may be getting itself into a quagmire. In the short term, they area already containing the western Salafi and al-Qaeda forces from taking Latakia, and perhaps even planning to roll them back. That would be a concrete achievement for Moscow of a sort Obama is lacking.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Sky News: “Russia’s foray into Syria draws concerns from Saudis”

41 Responses

  1. Prof. Cole – Would you consider writing an article in which you explain – for the benefit of the progressive, lay, US reader – your assessments of the core problems in the Middle East, what you believe Obama, the United States and other countries SHOULD do in the Middle East and your vision of the road to anything remotely resembling a peaceful and livable situation for the average resident of that area?

    • I’m with you! Yes, we need observers. And we need reporters. Yet the Middle East is like a big gang war between partisans of old, proud families. Maybe gang war is the correct analogy. Prof. Cole, can you shine a light on this and figure out a path for peace?

  2. I’m sorry Professor Cole, but your statement that air attacks and local ground forces worked for the US in Afghanistan is true only in an alternate universe. It has failed spectacularly both in Afghanistan and in Iraq. It failed in Vietnam. It failed in Afghanistan for the Soviet Union. Anyone who thinks Putin’s strategy is a good one hasn’t been paying attention to the developments of the last 50 years. To be successful; the local government has to be seen as legitimate, effective, and at least somewhat popular. Assad’s basic problem is that he is supported by mostly just the army and the Allawites. Do you honestly think that the intervention of Russian forces will rally Syrians to Assad’s cause? It’s clear to me that Obama is doing as little in possible in Syria and that for mainly political purposes. At one point he said something to the effect of , what interest do we have in Syria? And, in answer to the question of whether the world is safer because of the US response to the Syrian problem, he answered that the US is safer. Repeat after me, the US is not the world policeman. Syria is not our problem. It is a mess for which there is no good solution. Finally, a President who is a realist. How refreshing.

    • Air attacks and ground forces rolled up the Taliban in two months in 2011. The US subsequently heavily mismanaged the resulting peace (torture, attacking tribal leaders, running after every false lead of ‘taliban’) – but the strategy can work.

  3. You write, ” So the US is irrelevant to the major military development on the ground in Syria in the past year!”

    From the viewpoint of this US citizen, that’s OK!

    The Defense Department of the U.S. may feel a need to be “relevant” to the Syrian civil war; yet I would love to develop the argument that ordinary citizens of the US have no interest in being, and no need to be, “relevant” to the Syrian civil war.

    You note that Russia may be getting itself into a “long run … quagmire,” yet also write that Russian efforts to defend regime territory are an “achievement.”

    I would love to know the innermost thoughts of all Syrians, of all factions and grouplets and clan fragments, on whether foreign powers need to be seeking “achievements” in the on-going civil war. I’m guessing the majority would not see much need for such “achievements.”

    At this point, the only red line in any eventual settlement (whether achieved by internal Syrian forces or by regional and/or global power intervention) must be “No Massacres of Any Civilian Population.” All other items in any eventual settlement are negotiable. It would be great if such a settlement could be reached (mainly or only) by Syrian actors , but what ordinary citizens of all lands need is some sort of effort towards a settlement by anybody and/or everybody.

  4. Attempting to analyse their strategies would be simpler if Obama had authority over US actions anywhere near that which Putin enjoys over the deployment of Russian resources. Obama and Putin are not really comparable since Obama is obliged to seek a high degree of consensus from a divided Legislature and public, not to mention lobby interests, and be prepared to face constant scrutiny from news bite seeking media, and interrogation from politically provocative committees, while Putin is nowhere near so constrained.

    Using the surnames of leaders to describe what a nation is doing may be useful shorthand but it doesn’t reflect any deeper truth. The same is true of al-Assad; talking of him the way Westerners do ignores the role of the infrastructural forces that constrain him and have since he first arrived in the Presidential palace with bushy tailed hopes of reform.

    Obama reminds me somewhat of the pragmatic Harold Macmillan, UK Prime Minister during the JFK presidency and the height of the Cold War. He understood the influence of passing time, and stood up to Russian advances but retreated before they became open war. If in doubt, do nothing, doing nothing doesn’t mean nothing is done since events are ever moving of themselves. To some extent, leaving Russia to take on the Islamic activists, whatever their colour, is consistent with Obama’s expressed notion of ‘leading from the back’, that is to say letting others do the dirty work and bear the costs of it. If you have to sacrifice the ‘moderate rebels’ then take consolation from the fact that they were always something of a fantasy anyway.

  5. From an article in WaPo, it seems that our strategy is to keep giving weapons to rebels. I have some reservations about the Post’s headline for the article. With Russia and the U.S. both using their own air forces, the danger is that we may not just be talking about a proxy war. Also, the success of this strategy in Afghanistan, and the matter of who got mired in a quagmire, somewhat depends on which decade one considers. link to

  6. The answer is that Obama doesn’t want to upset our allies in the region, especially NATO ally Turkey, which despite all the talk is still “all-in” on removing Assad and is backing the Army of Conquest. The long-term problem for Russia is that Turkey is putting its thumb on the scale in the same way that Pakistan was in Afghanistan. Saudi (and the CIA) supply the weapons and Turkey is the go-between.

  7. So my senator Lindsey Graham would like to put US soldiers on the ground in Syria where they can figure out who is friend or foe. Should our troops fire at ISIL, al-Qaeda, Freemen of Syria, Army of Conquest, FSA, or Hizbullah? I say let Putin have the headaches.

  8. The USA should just quietly withdraw from Syria and let Russia bomb the heck out of the Saudi Arabia and Turkey backed al-Qaeda and Daesh.

    No one in Congress is even willing to discuss Syria, let alone authorize war, so why should Obama waste USA resources on a war started by Saudi Arabia?

    The USA should NOT support in any manner the wars started by Saudi Arabia (or Israel).

    Is Assad a “mean man?” Yes he is, but he is no worse that the Saudi King or any of the other “mean men” around the globe. It is long past time the USA quit trying to clean up the world and just let the locals deal with their local problems.

    Why the heck should the USA care who rules Syria this week? In the grand scheme of things it does NOT make one bit of difference to any American’s life.

    That being said Obama should just say to the press that Americans have spoken through the republican congress and said that they do not care about Syria.

  9. The Middle East has become an ever expanding labyrinth of chaos, with Iraq as its hollow and eviscerated center. The labyrinth of chaos has now expanded to Turkey, there is the ever present threat of its further expansion into Lebanon and Jordan; the liquifaction of boundaries, order, and government in the region has brought death and destruction to it on a modern unprecedented scale: yet how does one return from madness, from the schizophrenic condition of the inescapeable labyrinth? Only the reframing of the problem along materialist and economic lines, with a deep consciousness of the history and continuing presence of colonialism, can offer the impoverished majorities in the region an identitarian solution that escapes the self-defeating ideological labyrinth of ethnic and sectarian division, however, this is precisely what internal and external oligarchic forces in the region fear most of all, and, to be sure, what colors their perceptions of sectarian monstrosities such as ISIS–rather the whole Middle East on fire than that the hoi polloi enjoy anything approaching an actual semblance of democracy.

  10. Gene Lyons

    Putin has chosen a side, Assad’s. As a purely military matter, that makes more sense if the goal is to end the war.

  11. President Obama knows that ISIS has been largely funded by groups from Saudia Arabia, other emirates, Turkey and Israel. These are our so called allies, so he is in a vise.
    I thought Steve Croft was high on something, he seemed slightly unhinged during the interview. It’s interesting that when President Obama did try to take military action in Syria, it was the conservatives in Congress that would not support the use of air power. Has everyone forgotten that already?

  12. Seeing that the U.S. cannot topple Assad without essentially inviting the spread of ISIL and al-Qaeda, having Russia support the regime we cannot may be the best play at this point. Let Russia have the quagmire for a while, and perhaps work on to supporting the Kurds, who have a real history of fighting Daesh and legitimate nationalistic aspirations.

    • Regarding your comment about letting the Kurds do the fighting, Amnesty International just reported that it found the Kurds guilty of war crimes. Also, the Kurds were among those who carried out massacres of Armenians in 1915 under the Ottoman Empire. I mention this to show how messed up the Middle East is and how there are no clean hands in the region.

  13. He is giving up on a Pentagon plan to train thousands of “moderate” Syrian fighters to take on Daesh (ISIS, ISIL).

    But CNN claimed this morning the US is dropping supplies of ammunition to rebels.

  14. The unstated U.S. policy established by the CIA and the Pentagon at the behest of factions within multinational fossil-fuel enterprises is for the overthrow of the brutal al-Assad regime. The destruction of the accurately named “False-Caliphate” is a truly noble cause but to some extent a side-issue.

    Russia supports the al-Assad regime, unconditionally, due to prior business arrangements involving the Russian Tartous naval facility lease, the terminal(s) near Banais and the fact Syria is a loyal customer for Russian military products. Mr. Putin knows he can work with the al-Assad regime but cannot be certain with the assorted rebel factions.

    One of the primary reasons Russian air power has been priority targeting non-“False Caliphate” rebel factions is because much of those forces are not Syrian who originate from within former Soviet republics. So, Mr. Putin may have some influences to maintain current business dealings should they prevail?

    The entire region has become a convoluted vicious dog fight – though one thing is for certain, every dog in it has fossil fuel on it’s paws.

    Right now the big dog is Russian.

  15. I think our President needs an advisor like professor Cole to let him know that there is no armed moderate opposition in Syria. And that all armed elements already united under the black flag of Al-Fateh Army/Army of conquest, Including Ahrar Al-sham, Al-Nusra front, Al-Aqsa soldiers, Al-Sham brigade, Al-Sunni Army, Al-Sham soldiers militia and What’s left from Free Syrian Army. Unfortunately the United States Led base in Jordan is just providing support to jihadist under different names. It takes one look at so called free Syrian army to Know, and to put it lightly, that its braking every single rule of Geneva conventions. The US. Led coalition in the north and the 500 million dollars in armament and financial support, And that’s just on behalf of United States, only ended up in the hands of Al- Qaeda and its main affiliate Al-Nusra. And now we are promising more.
    Does our president know that the 2 main elements fighting each other and Assad are just 2 stars of Al Zawahri planet?
    There is no armed moderates just barbaric jihadis.

  16. Yes he does! Unlike those draft dodgers who had no compunction about sending our youths to their deaths in all corners of the planet, he is staying out of a war which has nothing to do with us and American interests. Why should we support all these decrepit monarchies of the Gulf? Let them work it out, with or without Russian help!

    • No ground troops doesn’t mean he is not at war. He was and still is just without training moderate opposition because he can’t find any. Arming continue and escalate. He is in another Afganistan in Syria and Turkey is the new Pakistan. And we all new what came out of arming jihadists. They just bit the hand that fed them. As for why we are supporting the monarchies, the naive answer would be billion of dollars worth of arm deals that shouldn’t end.

  17. A pre-civil war status needs to be re-established before a relatively orderly transition can take hold. Otherwise, we could be looking at a multifaceted civil war lasting a decade or more; similar to Lebanon (1975 to 1990).

  18. Professor Cole,
    How does this news:
    link to
    about 50 tons of ammunition just delivered to Syria (most likely to the AQ, based on the location of the drops) square against Obama’s assurance that the US will not escalate? Do you think that this is a confirmation of your suspicion that (at least some of the ) US policymakers are tacitly moving towards supporting jihadis? Afghanistan 1980 redux?

    • Remember that humans have been selling “free” stuff to others for fun and profit for thousands of years. This munitions could just as easily be used BY ISIS as against them.

  19. ‘the most effective fighters have been the extremists’

    Fighting is an inherently extreme process. That’s why the neocons and their R2P cousins are so irresponsible in their readiness to endorse the use of force.

    We should insist on dialogue, negotiation, consensus, compromise, voting, mediation, and binding arbitration as the means to resolve disputes.

  20. But does this not goad Obama toward the failed strategy of military intervention with no viable plan for progress? Russia has a naval base in Syria; whereas the US has no goal that it can admit to its own people. It is quite likely that the US secretly backs AlQaeda and even ISIL to create another Zbig insurgency trap for Russia as in AfPak War I, and to deny it the naval base and influence in Lebanon opposed by Israeli campaign donors.

    • “It is quite likely that the US secretly backs AlQaeda and even ISIL to create another Zbig insurgency trap for Russia as in AfPak War I, ”

      I don’t think the current US government is that smart. This *is* going to be the effect for Russia, though; it’s a trap for Russia, just like the Russian invasion of Afghanistan was a trap.

  21. Leaving Middle East policy to Israel and gulf Arabs, the peaceable nation builders that they are is a risk.

    The message of Putin on no outside interference, and stability above all should sound pretty good to gulf Arabs. Putin says he wants to protect Syria’s national integrity, but the card up his sleeve leaves him the prime real state when Syria is on the chopping block. Another generation of violence and professional regime changers in US and I can see gulf Arabs as his clients too, just when the oil and payment will really matter.

  22. Cole on the wrong side of affairs yet again. You were worth reading when you were anti-meddling. What made you change? Dreams of a Westernized Middle East? The worst thing a person could do is point a gun at someone and scream “Change!”

  23. After reading all 28 comments, I just have to say, ‘Great Discussion’. When would be a good time for when the Western Nations sits down with the BRICS, and they divid up all of the earth’s natural resources,etc? Scale back on military investments, revert money into positive worldwide infrastructure projects. The U.S. for sixty five years may have out spend all other nations combined, when it comes to defense spending, but did we spend it wisely? We always subvert to buying all other friends, when we do come to invade. I won’t go on, your all that wise to that, but sometime soon, it be would fantastic to get down to business. I think the rest of the world wants us to do that. You can tell I was just at the Bill & Melinda Gates, and I know they have their critics, but projects like with the vision of theirs would be better well money spend. Tanks, can be pounded into Farm Equip.,etc. maybe Doctors Without Borders, but we could do a lot if we were to change the mindset of our leadership and society. Plus, we really don’t have any friends.

    • Basic resources that all humans need are energy to power their environment and food to power their bodies. Solar, geothermal, winds and tidal provide more than enough energy for every human to have an overabundance and with huge amounts of energy, there is the ability to generate more than enough food for every human. There is no need to have resource wars on the earth. Just invest the wealth currently used by military toward local energy production and everything will be OK.

      Well, except for human greed and human belligerence driven by ego and an inferiority complex (small penis problem).

  24. Obama’s strategy is to appear as if he is doing something while accomplishing nothing. Bombing ISIL, training moderates, supporting the Kurds, all are ineffective because they are half-hearted PR exercises with no real goal.

    That is what a “world leader” is bound to do – pontificate and take some action at the beginning of every mess even if the situation is far from clear. Now a regime change would be literally out of Assad’s frying pan into the jihadi fire.

    Putin was under no pressure and waited over four years before striking. If Putin had moved sooner he would have faced enormous pressure but now he has a free hand because of perceived Western failure.

    The only question – will Putin be allowed to roll back the rebels and allow a relatively stable Assad dominated heartland to be set up? Or will the west, out of wounded pride, attempt to sabotage Putin and escalate the war?

  25. He will continue to bomb Daesh targets in Syria, even though these aerial raids appear to have produced no results.
    Actually not just the US. Also Australia, France, Canada, and the UK. Together they must have hundreds if not thousands of planes and helicopters which can strike anywhere with pinpoint accuracy. Not to mention satellites and drones which can scrutinise every square inch of DAESH territory. And they have been going at it since June last year, 16 months now. Yet ISIL does not appear to be defeated.
    I remember the ‘convey of death’ when Iraqi troops retreated from Kuwait. The devastation airpower can inflict on a column on a desert road is incredible. Yet ISIL are still roaming Syria and conquering new areas.
    I am starting to wonder the unthinkable – does the US have a strategy of inflicting minimal damage on ISIL? One possible reason is the end result of morale shattering strikes on ISIL fighters and the collapse of ISIL. The survivors would probably continue the fight by merging with the ‘moderates’ and making themselves immune to airstrikes. This would push existing rebel forces towards a more extreme and violent form of resistance.
    So does the West really want to contain IS rather than destroy them? is it cynical to wonder if the results of the bombing are exactly as planned?

  26. Putin’s strategy is fundamentally dead in the water, long term — he’s backing Assad, who’s lost the respect of the population.

    This is what the US has done in countless third-world countries — backed a hopeless loser as puppet dictator. Russia has a bit of a history of doing this too.

    If Putin is smart, he has a plan to kick out Assad in favor of a more popular puppet. But I see no sign that Putin is smart.

    Iran is playing things absolutely perfectly, of course, effectively backing the Alawites without explicitly backing Assad.

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