Confronting Russia now is too late, too difficult

Recent American press reports are full of opinions stating that the current American administration’s way of dealing with the Syrian crisis has been wrong since the beginning. Most of these opinions believe that America’s absence brought ISIS, Hezbollah and the Iranians and Russians to Syria.

Dennis Ross, who was a special assistant to President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2011, commented on Obama’s motives regarding Syria in a recently published article in the Washington Post and said that “Obama has been consistent on Syria,” adding: “Even when I was in the administration, the president made clear that he did not want to get dragged into the conflict there.”

The fear of war was also a motive for Gulf countries. However, after the Arab Spring revolutions erupted, Gulf countries realized that not intervening expands any threats against them and increases chances of chaos in the region; chaos meaning the spread of terrorism which leads to an increased influx of refugees.

Ross thinks it’s possible to benefit from the game rules by going to the Turks, Saudis and Qataris to create a safe haven for refugees along the ¬Turkish-Syrian border – a haven which the Europeans protect by air force, the Turks protect on ground and the Gulf countries finance.

However, isn’t it too late for such a suggestion? Isn’t there lots of doubt now in the American administration? And what’s the next step after five million Syrian refugees flee to this safe haven?

A comfortable policy

It’s been clear that the Obama administration does not want to get involved in the region ever since it insisted to exit Iraq and not to intervene in the Syrian and Libyan crises. Theoretically speaking, it is a comfortable policy to simply stay away; however, this policy proved to be a costly option for a superpower with major interests across the world.

The war is expanding and is almost spinning out of control.

If we go back four years ago, who would’ve thought that the most advanced Russian SU34 warplanes and American F-16 fighter jets will compete in Syrian skies in a worrying scene, which the world has seen nothing like since the end of the Cold War?

Turn back time

What if we can go back in time and ask: What could’ve been done to avoid the current threats? I think that even the worst of options back then, in 2011 and 2012, would’ve been a lot better than the current situation. The worst of options would’ve been intervening in Syria before the Iranians, Hezbollah and, most recently, the Russians arrived in Syria. What encouraged these parties to militarily enter Syria and Iraq is their realization that Washington never intends to fight or support the opposition and that it even adopted a policy that prevents supplying fighters with arms – a policy that was never implemented on the Assad regime that has used all sorts of weapons – from barrel bombs to chemical weapons!

Trust is now broken between Washington and its allies in the Middle East.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

I am not saying Washington should’ve opted for direct military intervention but it would’ve been enough if it had sponsored the plans of its allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, by supporting a political and military solution via the moderate opposition to achieve partial change in Damascus. These countries were willing to finance this plan when the oil price was higher than $100. However, Syria has today become the biggest battlefield for militias and political parties. Meanwhile, U.S. allies have no additional financial resources due to the decline in oil prices and these countries have also lost trust in the U.S. due to the latter’s truce with Iran in exchange of sealing the nuclear deal.

Carrot and the stick

In the meantime, Iran has invested in President Obama’s aversion to wars in order to serve its own hostile policy. It increased its military involvement in Syria and tightened its grip on governance in Iraq. It resorted to the carrot and the stick approach in which the carrot is the nuclear agreement, and it seems that this approach increased the White House’s policy to avoid confrontation in Iraq and Syria and thus leave the arena for the battling parties while getting preoccupied with negotiating a reconciliation with Iran.

The region’s other countries believe that not intervening is actually a policy on its own – a policy that has repercussions which may be dangerous. With no deterrents, Iran went ahead and widened its military intervention. This forced countries friendly to Washington to confront Iranian intervention in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen on their own in order to maintain their security and the balance of the region. The struggle thus expanded and the Russians have now entered the military arena.

If Washington had interfered from the beginning, would it have been possible to avoid all this bloodshed, chaos and international confrontation?

I don’t know, but there were good chances of controlling the situation in Syria in the past when the majority of the opposition was patriotic and not religious and when Iran hadn’t begun sending its agents as hired militias to fight alongside the Syrian regime.

We can say the same for Yemen. If Saudi Arabia hadn’t intervened in Yemen, the Saudi-Iranian confrontation would’ve been inevitable and on a larger scale.

For now, to confront the Russians and the Iranians in Iraq and Syria, a safe haven for refugees is not enough unless it’s accompanied with a military plan. In order for Washington to make the Iranian and Russian invaders pay a high price and force them to retreat, it will have to form some sort of front consisting of multiple forces. The problem is that this “price” will first be costly on Washington and its allies.

In the past, Washington’s allies were willing to take part in its wars. They supported Washington in Afghanistan and helped in some of the former’s battles in Iraq. They also pursued al-Qaeda and supported Washington in besieging Iran on the economic and financial levels. Today however, the most difficult mission which the White House will face is not convincing Russia to exit Syria but to convince its own allies in the Middle East to take part in any plan. Trust is now broken between Washington and its allies in the Middle East, and restoring it will require great effort.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.

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