Why Putin’s Syrian Intervention is a Stealth Victory for Obama

by Benjamin Studebaker

Vladimir Putin has taken the bait and decided to intervene militarily in Syria, launching airstrikes on behalf of the Assad regime. Many people are portraying this as some kind of disaster for US foreign policy. President Obama has been accused of abdicating regional leadership to Russia. But while Obama has consistently claimed that he wants Syrian President Bashar al-Assad removed from power, his actions belie this. What Obama really wants to do is buck-pass. He wants to force other countries to bear most of the financial and human costs of eliminating ISIS, keeping America’s role as limited as is politically possible. His actions over the past four years make this very clear.

Here’s the current situation in Syria:

The rebels include not merely moderate groups like the Free Syrian Army, but also radical groups like the Al-Nusra Front. White spaces are mostly uninhabited.

On multiple occasions, Barack Obama has had an opportunity to intervene militarily in Iraq and Syria, either to eliminate the Assad regime or to wage a ground campaign against ISIS. On all of these occasions, he has begged off. Sometimes he has done so clumsily–like the time he drew a “red line” on chemical weapons to deter their use but was not genuinely prepared to back that rhetoric up with military force. But whenever he has faced public pressure to intervene in Syria, Obama desperately fumbles for an excuse to do nothing. Perhaps this sounds like a criticism, but it’s really a quite strategic move. For all his bumbling, Obama understands something that Hillary Clinton and the republicans don’t–a solution to the Syrian Civil War imposed by the United States will be extremely expensive and it won’t last.

In Iraq, the United States committed potentially trillions of dollars to removing Saddam Hussein and replacing him with a liberal democracy. This involved an extensive occupation and serious human costs. When the United States finally left, the order it had spent so much time, money, and human resources to purchase quickly evaporated as unresolved sectarian divisions resurfaced. Shiite President Nouri Al-Maliki began persecuting the Sunnis. Some of the Sunnis radicalized. When the Syrian Civil War started up, many radicalized Iraqi Sunnis joined up with radicalized Syrian Sunnis, fueling the rise of ISIS. Ever since, ISIS has waged a war against the Shiite governments in both Syria and Iraq. The Syrian and Iraqi governments radicalized sections of their Sunni populations by systematically mistreating their Sunni citizens. If the United States comes in and wipes out ISIS without forcing the Syrian and Iraqi peoples to confront their sectarian problems, it will once again expend immense resources to purchase ephemeral stability. Sooner or later the US will again have to withdraw, and the stability purchased will again be lost. The only way to create sustainable, enduring stability is for these countries to reach their own political solutions. Obama seems to understand that a full US intervention will only enable this cycle to repeat, at great financial cost to the federal government.

That said, there have been some big mistakes along the way. The Syrian Civil War does not exist in a vacuum. Neighboring countries all have stakes in the conflict, and many of them have been quite willing to back one side or the other with weapons and financial support. This has prolonged the conflict and increased the amount of suffering it entails. It has also forced many thousands of people out of their homes and precipitated a refugee crisis. Sunni-dominated countries (e.g. Saudi Arabia) tend to back varying rebel factions, while Shiite-dominated countries (e.g. Iran) tend to back the Syrian and Iraqi governments. The US, UK, and France have tried to support moderate rebels who are willing to fight against ISIS, but these efforts have gone very poorly. Many of the weapons sent have been captured by more radical rebel groups, and the rebels that have been trained have routed easily and been startlingly useless. Amazingly, only an estimated “4 or 5” US-trained rebels are currently fighting. Obama has responded by effectively claiming to have been pressured into arming rebels by Hillary Clinton, the CIA, and his generals, alleging that he never really believed it was a good idea. Said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest:

It is true that we have found this to be a difficult challenge. But it is also true that many of our critics had proposed this specific option as essentially the cure-all for all of the policy challenges that we’re facing in Syria right now. That is not something that this administration ever believed, but it is something that our critics will have to answer for.

If Obama believed in arming the rebels, he screwed up. If he didn’t, he should have stood up to his critics. In any case, his strategy has developed in new ways since then. Obama has cut a deal with Iran that will enable Iran to access billions of dollars it has stashed in frozen foreign accounts–it is quite likely that Iran will use some of this money to support the Syrian and Iraqi governments against ISIS and other rebel groups, but Obama seems unperturbed by this. This suggests that Obama does not really care if Assad stays or goes, despite what he says to the contrary. It suggests that at this point, he prefers to eliminate ISIS and achieve stability, irrespective of whether that stabilizing force consists of Sunnis or Shiites, dictators or democrats. But Obama still does not want to commit US ground forces to that goal or expend substantive amounts of money to do it. He is still trying to play the waiting game, hoping that the instability ISIS creates in the region will eventually force other countries to intervene against ISIS.

This message has been consistently undermined by Obama’s domestic political opponents, many of whom keep promising that when they are elected, America’s military commitment will increase dramatically. If other countries could wait until after the 2016 election, it’s reasonably likely that the next US president will make much larger commitments and allow them to rest easy. Fortunately for Obama, Iran and Russia are not quite that patient. They are stepping up their support for the Assad regime in a bid to destroy ISIS and restore the Shiite status quo that prevailed before 2011. This allows the US to rest easy while Russia and Iran bear the costs of defeating ISIS. Instead of spending billions itself, the US has effectively goaded Russia and Iran into spending those billions protecting US security interests. For the first time in a long time, the US is getting other countries to pay to accomplish its objectives rather than the other way around. Donald Trump likes to boast that he will build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. Barack Obama has managed to goad Russia and Iran into creating and paying for an anti-ISIS coalition. That looks like a stealth victory to me. Perhaps Obama has read The Art of the Deal after all?