National Security

Staying the Course in Syria? Which Course?

Obama prefers "leading on climate change" to actual leadership.

Paul Albaugh · Oct. 13, 2015
Oh, that course.

For the past six and a half years, the world has witnessed failure after failure of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. It would be terrific if we had a president who understood how U.S. involvement or lack thereof can make a situation go from bad to worse. But we don’t.

During an interview with Steve Croft on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Obama insisted he would stay the course in Syria. “We are prepared to work both diplomatically and where we can to support moderate opposition that can help convince the Russians and Iranians to put pressure on [Bashar al-] Assad for a transition.” Obama then reaffirmed that he would not “reinsert [the U.S.] in a military campaign inside of Syria.”

When asked about the failure to train and equip Syrian rebels, Obama conceded the $500 million effort “did not work,” but he also argued, “I’ve been skeptical from the get-go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside Syria.”

Is that so? Remember his Sept. 10, 2014, national address, in which he declared, “[W]e have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition. Tonight, I call on Congress again to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters.”

That doesn’t sound like he was “skeptical from the get-go.” In fact, he now says his next objective is — wait for it — to provide direct aid to existing, Pentagon-approved rebel units.

Obama insists he’s staying the course. What course? He set a phony “red line” on Assad using chemical weapons only to backtrack and attribute it to “the world” setting the line. He half-heartedly asked Congress to approve attacking Assad and then backed away in favor of throwing $500 million to train 5,000 rebels — of which only a handful were fully trained. Now he’s even stopped that program. Again, what course?

It bears repeating that Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq left a vacuum that was filled by the Islamic State. In Syria, Obama’s capricious strategies to remove Assad from power left a vacuum of a similar sort, which was also filled by the Islamic State, Russia and Iran. Remember though, Obama lectured in 2012 that Russia did not pose a threat. But Russia’s interests in the region are not the same as ours, so Russia is a threat indeed.

Writing an opinion piece for The Washington Post, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates assert, “The fact is that Putin is playing a weak hand extraordinarily well because he knows exactly what he wants to do. He is not stabilizing the situation according to our definition of stability. He is defending Russia’s interests by keeping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power. This is not about the Islamic State. Any insurgent group that opposes Russian interests is a terrorist organization to Moscow.”

Despite Obama’s contention that Putin is weak, the Kremlin’s strongman is projecting power in Syria that has the major powers in the world on edge, including the United States. Further, as National Review’s Andrew Stuttaford explains, Putin’s intentions may be “to prove that Russia is a reliable ally to have in a tough spot,” and “to force a binary choice upon the West — Assad or ISIS.” All of this is humiliating to the United States, but hey, at least Obama is staying the course.

Historian Victor Davis Hanson offers this perspective: “Putin is sending a warning to the oil-exporting Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf, who are as rich as they are militarily weak: Russia, not the United States, is the new cop on the Middle Eastern beat.”

Hanson further notes, “If oil-rich and nuclear Russia and a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran can bully the Sunni monarchies, Putin’s new cartel may control the spigot of some 75 percent of the world’s daily export of oil.”

But don’t worry; the rebels in Syria will take care of business. It turns out the rebels who we armed may have played a part with Putin intervening in Syria. How so? Because one of the weapon systems with which we armed the Syrian rebels is the TOW missile. This is the most deadly anti-tank missile in modern warfare, and Assad’s armored vehicles have suffered substantial losses from it. Several Russian tanks have been lost as well, which explains why Russian aircraft has been targeting rebel fighting positions that are firing the TOW missiles.

Proxy war, anyone? Isn’t this reminiscent of us arming the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan with Stinger missiles in the 1980s to shoot down Russian aircraft? The decision to arm the Syrian rebels with these missiles is extremely worrisome because of the technology involved. Did anyone in this administration bother to consider what Islamic State jihadis will do if they get their hands on those missiles?

What about the U.S. fighter jets tasked with taking out Islamic State targets? Now that Russia is involved in Syria, our fighter pilots are under strict new rules to give way if Russian aircraft come within 20 miles of our aircraft. (By contrast, the British Royal Air Force has been given the green light to shoot down hostile Russian jets in Syria.) So give our pilots strict rules and declare that Russia’s strategy isn’t working. Thanks, Obama.

Finally, in case you missed it, China is moving warships into the Mediterranean, supposedly to fight the Islamic State. Given China’s general alliance with Russia, however, it’s hardly a mystery why they’re really there.

What is taking place in Syria right now is what happens when the U.S. is viewed by major powers in the world as being weak. It’s a geopolitical nightmare that will take a leader who projects strength to overcome. Perhaps a leader who doesn’t define leadership, as Obama did in his interview, as “leading on climate change.”

Correction: Due to a typo, we said it was the 1970s when we armed the Afghans. It was, in fact, the 1980s.

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