Putin has checkmated Obama in Syria

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem

Hisham Melhem

By : Hisham Melhem

A few months after Russian President Vladimir Putin brazenly annexed Crimea from Ukraine, President Barack Obama dismissed those analysts who hailed Putin’s land grab as a masterful strategic coup: “Three or four months ago, everybody in Washington was convinced that President Putin was a genius and he had outmaneuvered all of us, and he had bullied, and strategized his way into expanding Russian power,” Obama told National Public Radio. “Today, I’d sense that – at least outside of Russia – maybe some people are thinking what Putin did wasn’t so smart.”

Less than a year later, Obama finds himself forced to stop his silent treatment towards Putin, ending the suspension of military talks with the Russians and agreeing to rehabilitate his adversary by meeting him formally for the first time in two years at the United Nations. How did Putin, a ruthless practitioner of hard power, get the best of Obama? How did Putin, while presiding over a country afflicted with serious structural economic problems, buffeted by a recession caused by collapsing oil prices and subjected to Western sanctions and political isolation, manage to freeze the Ukraine crisis and put it in the background, while elevating the war in Syria as the most urgent crisis requiring American and European attention?

Perplexed in Washington

President Obama’s overall aimlessness in the Middle East, (with the exception of the Iran nuclear deal), his lack of seriousness and resolve in dealing with Syria’s savage wars, that are threatening the whole Eastern Mediterranean region and his unwillingness to challenge Iran’s destabilizing activities in Syria and Iraq and his inability to pursue a comprehensive regional strategy against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), gave Putin a historic opportunity to re-assert Russia’s influence in the region.

President Obama’s epic failure in Syria brought Putin out of the cold and now Putin is trying to bring Bashar Assad out of the cold and into a Russian led coalition to fight ISIS and other radical Islamists

Hisham Melhem

In recent months and weeks leaders of Arab Gulf states, Egypt, Israel and Turkey went on Eastern sojourns to Moscow to discuss the future of a region on the verge of a meltdown. In recent weeks the Obama administration found itself once again trying to guess Russia’s real intentions following its large military buildup in western Syria. The confusion of a perplexed administration was on full display.

Russia’s enlargement of a civilian airport in Latakia, its deployment of a contingent of Special Forces, drones, dozens of jet fighters, ground attack jets and attack helicopters, anti-aircraft missiles and tanks and facilities to house up to 2,000 military personnel was pronounced by Secretary Of State John Kerry, the eternally optimistic Doctor Pangloss of the Obama administration as defensive in nature. “It is the judgment of our military and most experts that the level and type (of weaponry) represents basically force protection.”

Later on, according to press reports U.S. Intelligence agencies informed the White House that Russian forces in Syria are on the verge of conducting military operations and the “jets are ready to strike at any moment. The equipment we’ve seen out there is not strictly defensive,” one U.S. official was quoted as saying. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter was more explicit warning that Russian airstrikes would be tantamount to “pouring gasoline on the civil war in Syria. That is certainly not productive from our point of view.”

The arsonist as the fireman

President Obama’s epic failure in Syria brought Putin out of the cold and now Putin is trying to bring Bashar Assad out of the cold and into a Russian led coalition to fight ISIS and other radical Islamists like Jabhat al-Nusra, with the promise to the Europeans that this new coalition will help alleviate their Syrian refugee crisis, the very crisis Putin had helped in creating by his considerable lethal support of the Assad regime. If there ever was a deal made in hell this would be it.

Putin the arsonist is fading away, and Putin the fireman is emerging as the indispensable leader to fight Islamist terrorism in Syria, and to save Western Europe from those refugees storming its ramparts and trying to enter its rapidly closing gates. Every Russian move and every Iranian decision in Syria scream loudly that the two states are as committed as ever to the survival of the Assad regime.

Before his arrival in New York, Putin confirmed his intentions to support Assad in an interview with Charlie Rose of the “60 Minutes” program on the CBS television network when he was asked if he was planning to “rescue” Assad. “Well, you’re right.” Then he warned that the destruction of “the legitimate government” in Syria would create chaos and disintegration as was the case in Libya and Iraq, in a clear jab against American interventions in those two states. “And there is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism. But at the same time, urging them to engage in positive dialogue with the rational opposition and conduct reform.”

Redeeming the irredeemable

The false narrative of the Obama administration, some European countries and a growing number of analysts confronting ISIS, al-Nusra and other Islamists, is the urgent priority that has now played into Putin’s narrative and is beginning to reflect a very disturbing shift towards rehabilitating Assad.

Assad’s regime is the most brutal military machine in Syria, responsible for the killing of more than 95 percent of civilians, according to human rights organizations. Syrians in the main are fleeing the country because of the depredations of the Assad regime. The United Nations envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura said it explicitly that it is “totally unacceptable that the Syrian air force attacks its own territory in an indiscriminate way, killing its own citizens. The use of barrel bombs must stop. All evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of the civilian victims in the Syrian conflict have been caused by the use of such indiscriminate aerial weapons.”

Secretary Kerry recently repeated his pro-forma mantra that Assad has no place in Syria’s future, but he indicated a willingness to keeping him around for a period of time that was negotiable. However the German Chancellor was more generous towards Assad saying “we have to speak with many actors, this includes Assad…”

Following his meeting with Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan appeared to have fallen into Putin’s circle of thought saying Assad could take part in the transition process. What is so ironic about these political shifts towards Russia and Assad is they are taking place after the Assad regime has suffered serious military setbacks in the Idlib Governorate in the North, which prompted both Russia and Iran to step up their support for the regime. It is crucial here to clarify that both Iran and Russia are committed to defending their strategic and political interests in Syria more than they are wedded to the idea of keeping Assad in power indefinitely. But it is also true that both states are convinced that no future leaders in Damascus regardless of their religious background will give them the kind of unfettered influence and power that Assad has given them.


There is ample anecdotal evidence that the fallback position for the Assad regime in the case of the war dragging on for years and regaining control of areas lost to the opposition is no longer viable, that the regime will consolidate control over Damascus and its immediate environs, and a long corridor adjacent to the Lebanese borders linking the capital with Homs and the coastal region, the ancestral land of the Alawite community.

A review of some of the early massacres of Sunni civilians in villages inside or bordering this region such as Bayda, Baniyas, Tal Kalakh and Qusayr show these deliberate killings were designed to cleanse a potential Alawite statelet of Sunnis. The current campaign by the regime and Hezbollah militia against the Sunni enclave of Zabadani close to the Lebanese border is the latest indication that the regime is continuing its sectarian cleansing war.

Short of a massive outside military intervention with ground forces, it is difficult to see a quick end to the war in Syria

Hisham Melhem

The nature and size of the Iranian revolutionary guards and Shiite militias from Lebanon, and elsewhere deployed in Syria, as well as the recent Russian buildup clearly shows that Assad and his allies are unable to wrestle control of the more than 70 percent of Syrian territory that is in the hands of the rebels. Such a de facto state could be defended by Russian and Iranian muscle for the foreseeable future, and the enclave would continue to provide Russia a port on the Mediterranean, and maintain Iran’s land access to Hezbollah in Lebanon. But, the long term survival of such an enclave, if it is not an autonomous part of a unitary federated Syrian state is very doubtful.

The worst is yet to come?

Short of a massive outside military intervention with ground forces, it is difficult to see a quick end to the war in Syria. As we have seen in Angola, Sudan, Afghanistan and Lebanon, such conflicts can rage for more than a decade. Theoretically, it is still possible to save Syria from disintegration, although the chances are diminishing with each passing day.

I do not expect the Obama administration to exercise serious leadership, working with its regional allies to mobilize a serious national and non-militant opposition coalition to take on the Assad regime, ISIS and the other radical Islamist groups. But such an approach should be explored nonetheless. A change in leadership style and content in Washington could force the combatants and their sponsors, to review their plans and options.

Belated American leadership in Bosnia and Kosovo prevented massacres and led to the cessation of hostilities. If the U.S. had not lead a coalition to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, who knows how many years Saddam would have maintained his occupation? There are many proposals presented by leaders, former officials and academics about how to start reclaiming Syria. The U.S. is still capable of convincing Jordan and Turkey to start recruiting Syrians opposed to both Assad and ISIS, but not according to its impossible vetting criteria which assume almost moral purity on the part of those who are about to go fight brutal evils.

Safe zones should be established close to the borders of Turkey and Jordan, where the displaced can be helped and opposition rebels and NGO’s can begin to provide services, and a modicum of governance. Assad will be warned not to bomb these safe zones, and if he fails to heed the warnings, the U.S. should shoot down his air force, as retired General David Petraeus said last week during his congressional testimony, where he called for greater U.S. role in Syria.

The U.S. and its allies can start working on “Seizing local opportunities in Syria” where new alliances can be formed among non-militant groups and minorities such as the Druze and the admittedly more difficult coordination between Kurdish and Arab groups. There were no serious sustained efforts to explore these possibilities before. Success requires that the U.S. start by re-establishing its credibility, and by convincing all concerned that it is in it to win it. Not exercising such leadership will condemn Syria to a slow but increasingly violent death. But Syria, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas will not go gently or solely into that long cold night.

Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted “Across the Ocean,” a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter: @hisham_melhem


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