Headline Photo: ISW
Written by Kei Zamaninoor, Middle East Correspondent
Since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries, the Syrian conflict has become the focus of experts and political groups for evaluating the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. The situation has entered a new phase since Russia began its direct involvement in the conflict and initiated airstrikes against anti-Assad forces. Expectedly, many believe that the Syrian conflict has become a U.S. vs. Russia showdown for determining the fate of one of the most strategically significant regions in the world. As Russia expands its presence in Syria and its support for pro-Assad forces, Obama’s opponents are increasingly critical of the way his administration has decided to respond to the conflict. These critics believe that Obama‘s Syria policy is endangering the preservation of American influence in the region, and that Russia is on the verge of replacing the U.S. as the stabilizer of the Middle East. The ongoing confrontation between the West and Russia over Ukraine is also adding to the sensitivity of the situation. In spite of this, what opponents fail to consider is that Obama is doing exactly what he promised before becoming the President: keeping America from entering another never-ending conflict. In fact, Obama has responded in such a way that, given existing dynamics of the Middle East, the U.S.’s potential losses are minimized and gains maximized.
The ideal situation for the U.S. would have been the following: American troops enter Syria, they defeat Islamic State, they topple the Assad regime, and a pro-west democratically elected government is put in charge of Syria. This is also the exact scenario that everyone hoped for before the Iraq War. Not only is such a scenario unlikely, it has been proven to be impossible. The outcome of the Iraq War left no doubt about the disastrous consequences that direct on-the-ground American involvement can have. With such involvement, post-war stability will likely be short-term and unsustainable, and can lead to a power vacuum, which can have potentially negative effects throughout the region.
This is probably the reason why critics of Obama’s foreign policy have, so far, relied only on criticizing his Syria strategy instead of presenting alternatives. The rhetoric of these groups leads one to think that they are advocating for a full-scale direct American involvement. Yet, given the unpopularity of such a policy and its adverse effects on countries such as Iraq, they have been consistent in distancing themselves from neo-conservative policies.
Unlike these groups, however, Obama has been successful in assessing the situation in Syria and has devised a plan strictly based on potential costs and benefits for the U.S. In this regard, Obama correctly took into account various factors before choosing a course of action.
First, Obama did not back down from his stance against deploying ground troops for fight against ISIL, either in Iraq or Syria. This was a key decision, as such involvement could mean hefty financial costs for the U.S. A study in 2013 estimated that the Iraq war cost about $2 trillion. The Obama administration could not afford to incur such cost.
Second, Obama, at least in the beginning, did not express any willingness to collaborate with Russia. Given the Russian support of Bashar Al-Assad, Obama had to show his allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey that he is willing to go against the Russian-backed Assad without showing any sign of compromise. The Ukrainian conflict also made this strategy more feasible. With U.S.’s European allies concerned with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the determination of U.S.’s Middle Eastern allies to oust Assad, Obama decided to take a confrontational stance against Russia.
Third, Obama exercised the option that was popular among his opponents in the congress. This option was arming and supporting what the US considered moderate anti-Assad rebel forces. He used this strategy continuously, although some criticized him for not doing enough. Nonetheless, his administration never indicated that it would halt such support. Obama shrewdly left it to the U.S. military to report the ineffectiveness of this policy to the Republican-controlled Congress. In September 2015, General Lloyd Austin, commander of US Central Command testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services that only four or five U.S.-trained fighters were active in Syria. This was the result of the U.S. spending nearly $500 million to train these rebels. With this revelation, Obama could consider initiating talks with the Russians before their military campaign in Syria. At this point, the Ukrainian crisis had already passed its climactic stage and it was easier to convince the European allies to support such a policy shift.
Fourth, Obama, through this process, created enough room to compromise while emphasizing the same end result, which is a Syria without Assad. In September 2015, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated that Assad “has to go but the timing of his departure should be decided through negotiation.” This was a major shift in the U.S. approach to the Syrian issue. However, Obama was able to make this shift while ensuring that he kept aspects of the Syria strategy that were appealing to the U.S.’s allies in the Middle East and domestic Republican lawmakers.
The options before Obama
All these past developments aside, Obama is now faced with a Russia that has aggressively increased its direct involvement in the Syrian conflict and an emboldened pro-Assad military that is gaining major victories in different battles. From a strictly American standpoint, the outcome of the Russian military campaign in Syria will be mostly beneficial, regardless of the end result. To this end, Obama faces two major scenarios.
Scenario one: Russian victory
This is probably the outcome that many in the West are afraid of. For these groups, a Russian victory in Syria is a great danger for the American influence in the Middle East. It actually does make sense, as an American, to be worried about a growing Russian presence in the region. Still, the benefits for the U.S., even in this scenario, outweigh the costs.
For starters, a Russian victory would mean that Islamic State is defeated or, at least, heavily weakened. This would be a major victory for the US, as the most dangerous terrorist group in the world that poses a great threat to the West is obliterated.
Furthermore, a Russian victory does not, in any way, mean a Middle East controlled or influenced by the Russian military. Given the existing political and economic relations between the West and the countries in the Middle East, the gloomy scenario of Russia taking over from the U.S. is highly unlikely. Turkey, for instance, is a NATO country and it is still pursuing EU membership. Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have major trade relations with Western countries or their close allies Japan and South Korea. Additionally, NATO members are the primary suppliers of arms for these countries. The situation with Iran would at the very least not get worse. With the nuclear deal entering the implementation phase and the end of economic sanctions against Iran, the Shiite country is expected to substantially increase its trade with European countries. This would mean fewer incentives for Tehran to assist the Russians with the expansion of their presence in the region.
Given the dynamics of the Middle East, a Russian victory does not mean the demise of U.S. influence in the region. Many countries in the region will remain close to the West as they have no reason to welcome Russia’s increasing military presence. Other countries, such as Iran, will continue pursuing their own agendas, while ensuring that they do not drastically favour one side over the other.
Scenario two: Russian defeat
From the very beginning, Obama devised his Syria strategy around a core objective: never sending U.S. ground troops to fight Islamic State. The reason is simple: the U.S. cannot afford to get dragged into another costly never-ending war in the Middle East. If Russia is unable to dismantle Islamic State in Syria, the major benefit for the U.S. will be that it avoided getting involved in such a war. Besides, who would be a better choice to deal with such a costly and complex situation than the U.S.’s main rival, Russia? Even though Russia has kept its intervention limited to airstrikes, it will still have to endure hefty political and financial costs if it is not successful in defeating Islamic State.
A complex situation with limited options
Obama’s Syria plan is not perfect. The U.S. is still facing a Russia that has many reasons to use Syria as a stepping-stone to mitigate the U.S.’s influence in the Middle East and increase its own. Nevertheless, Obama has to rely on the limited options available to him and make the best decisions for this rather complex situation. So far, as it seems, he has made the right choices. Many may consider his choices bizarre or unwise, but at this point the situation has developed in such a way that his previous choices have proven right and wise. In spite of this, no one can predict the future of Syria and the balance of power between Russia and the U.S. in the Middle East. This will remain dependent on the way the leaders of both countries decide to play this geopolitical chess game.
Kei Zamaninoor is currently a Master of Global Affairs (MGA) Candidate at Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. He previously studied Business Administration at Schulich School of Business, York University. His research interests include international business, international economy, Middle Eastern geopolitics, and Iranian affairs.