Wednesday, November 26, 2014

This region pays heavily for Obama’s arrogance

Few things are more shameless than an administration on the ropes. This fact was brought home earlier this week when Chuck Hagel, the American defence secretary, announced that he would be stepping down.

Mr Hagel wasn’t quite fired, but the operative term was that he was “forced to resign”. A major reason hinted at by the administration was that the secretary had failed to define clear strategies in Syria and Iraq, permitting the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Martin Dempsey, to occupy centre stage.

The US military has been leaking heavily lately, mainly to reflect its displeasure with tight White House control over military operations in Syria. Mr Hagel undoubtedly paid a price because Mr Obama felt he had failed to control the top brass.

If the White House seeks clarity, Mr Obama’s recent letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hasn’t helped. The letter has not been made public, but those briefed on its contents told The Wall Street Journal that the president wrote that Washington and Iran had parallel interests in combating ISIL. In light of this, Mr Obama reassured the Iranian leader that American military operations inside Syria would not target Bashar Al Assad or his security forces.

Mr Hagel reportedly realised that the administration’s Syria policy was deeply flawed. He is said to have recently sent a memo to Susan Rice, the national security adviser, warning that the policy risked unravelling because of the administration’s failure to clarify its intentions towards Mr Al Assad.

The reality is that the White House has bullheadedly refused to address the future of the Syrian regime, even as it rejects dealing with Mr Al Assad and continues to fight extremists who will thrive for as long as he remains in office. Predictably, this tissue of contradictions has made US policy unintelligible.

American incoherence has strained relations between Washington and Ankara. In delaying aid to the Kurds fighting ISIL in Kobani, Turkey has, correctly, insisted that the real priority must be to get rid of the Assad regime. Unless that is done, all the elements that allowed ISIL to emerge will remain in place.

It is startling how indifferent, or how impervious, the Obama administration has been to the terrible suffering in Syria. Nor has it understood the outrage the slaughter has provoked worldwide. It is that outrage that has prompted thousands of foreigners to fight in Syria, and that has reinforced the most extremist tendencies among Mr Al Assad’s enemies.

Worse, today Mr Obama is proposing collaboration with Iran against ISIL. Yet Tehran has abetted Mr Al Assad in his crimes and is vital to his survival. The administration seems unconcerned that this will only undermine its own policy of building up so-called moderates in the Syrian opposition.

No one in the Syrian opposition, moderates or extremists, will want to be seen as siding with the Americans when Mr Obama is publicly reassuring Ayatollah Khamenei that Mr Al Assad is safe. On the contrary, they will regard the United States as an enemy – a trend already increasingly visible today.

Incomprehensibly, Washington has failed to apply in Syria the same logic it has pursued in Iraq. In Iraq it has insisted that the only way to undermine ISIL is to push the Shia-dominated government to better integrate Sunnis into the political system, since ISIL feeds off Sunni discontent. Yet Mr Obama evidently doesn’t accept that something so self-evident is relevant in Syria.

There are many in Washington who feared that a nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 would have encouraged the administration to collaborate more readily with Tehran in the Middle East. That may be overstating things. In some places American and Iranian interests are parallel, for instance in Iraq and in specific situations in Lebanon. In others it is less so.

The problem is that no one quite understands what the Obama administration’s agenda is. It has senselessly alienated an old ally in Turkey, but seems willing to cooperate with an old enemy in Iran, one of Turkey’s regional rivals. It says that it wants Mr Al Assad to leave office and has long regarded him and Hizbollah as destabilising forces in the region, but has virtually recognised that Iran’s allies in Syria will not be harmed.

If this represented a strategic realignment in the region, then it would have been clearer. But it seems more a consequence of the White House’s irreconcilable aims and the fact that Ms Rice has been an incompetent national security adviser, utterly incapable of imposing a direction to American foreign policy.

Syria will continue to frustrate the United States, but the belief that Mr Al Assad will remain in office may be optimistic. His forces have taken heavy losses in recent months, and while he may last for a time, the Obama administration must prepare for the possibility of his regime falling. It may happen or it may not, but if extremist groups one day take over in Damascus, Mr Obama will be partly responsible for a grand mess.

Rarely has an administration been as severely criticised by its own former members as this one. Perhaps Mr Hagel will be next to write a sour memoir on his time in office. It can only be arrogance that explains Mr Obama’s unwillingness to admit, and undo, his administration’s blunders. Meanwhile, the Middle East will continue to pay in human lives for such conceit.

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