By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
1 February 2016
What does the future hold for Syria? For the past five years, this question has been bitterly fought over. And it continues to be fought over. But now it is no longer a case of what will happen, so much as when will it happen? This is because by now it looks quite certain that when the dust settles, President Assad will still come out on top.
The game-changer for this situation, as I have written at length before, has been the involvement of Russia in the war on Assad’s side. With Russian troops on the ground, and Russian fighters in the air, no Western leader has had the stomach to risk direct engagement – not that they were all that keen to begin with. But now, even supporting anti-Assad, non-ISIS rebels has become incredibly difficult.
There has been that heart-stopping moment when Turkey, the NATO ally, shot down a Russian plane, which had briefly violated its airspace. That was more than close enough for everyone. Thankfully, cooler heads have prevailed since. But as the Russians are winning Assad’s war for him, our Western leaders have been left with nothing to do except acknowledge the reality on the ground and the inevitable outcome.
Obama does not want to leave an open war so he is rushing towards conflict resolution irrespective of what the final settlement may be
Hence why are our relations towards Russia warming even as the Ukraine situation remains a frozen war, where Russia continues to occupy Crimea, and is carrying out cyber-attacks on that country’s infrastructure on a scale never seen before? President Putin has been found to be “probably” directly involved in a political assassination on the streets of London, by an independent judicial inquiry.
The West’s strategy in Syria is effectively driven only by the United States and President Obama has, quite clearly, given up on the conflict. The hopes and dreams the Syrian people had over five years ago when they rose against Assad – a dictator under whose watch many of his people were murdered before the conflict, and hundreds of thousands after it – have been dashed.
Obama clearly does not want to leave an open war as he ends his term this year, so he is rushing towards conflict resolution, irrespective of what the final settlement may be. And so, much to the dismay of the millions of Syrians who have fought against Assad and who thought they had America’s backing, Obama is folding to the Russian position.
Since the concern over Obama’s legacy is an important mover in these events, it is fair to stop and assess exactly what this legacy will be. Obama has had great domestic triumphs: avoiding a second Great Depression with a stimulus which, botched as it may have been, has seen the United States enjoy the best recovery of any Western economy. Job figures have improved, bringing to America something close enough to Western standards of universal healthcare. And there have been other significant achievements.
But his record on foreign policy has been dismal. Bringing Iran into the fold is perhaps his only notable achievement. And there it may still be too early to tell whether things will actually turn out as we hope.
We find that we are still fighting the same wars in Iraq and Afghanistan even though we have officially withdrawn from both countries; large swathes of the Islamic world, from Libya to Syria to Yemen, are effectively stateless, while many more are teetering towards “failed state” status.
We have managed to alienate many long-time allies such as the Saudis and the Israelis; we have lost much faith within NATO as the United States has been caught spying on Angela Merkel and other European heads of state, and so on.
How much of this is the fault of President Obama making poor decisions is debatable. But it is beyond doubt that many of these situations have developed as a consequence of the administration’s indecisiveness and even unwillingness to show leadership, where clear and vigorous leadership was needed.
As we look forward to the next 4 or 8 years, we have little reason to be hopeful that things will get better on the geo-political stage. But let us hope that they will not get much worse, if we are lucky to get an administration which is more willing and able to have a positive contribution in the world.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.