Obama’s Peace Talks Are Latest Blunder in Feckless Syria Policy
Negotiations to resolve the Syrian civil war stumbled to their opening in Geneva on Friday. If peace in a united Syria is their objective, these talks are doomed to failure.
Of course, if the UN-sponsored talks are intended simply to create the appearance of “doing something” about Syria, Geneva is a comfortable venue for charades. ISIS, Iran, Russia and the Bashar al-Assad regime see no risk, and perhaps some benefit, in a lengthy, inconclusive process.
Ironically, the party most reluctant to come to the Geneva table, Syria’s “moderate” opposition, fears that President Obama, its nominal supporter, may be poised to sell it out.
Washington allowed this descent into chaos, despite its repeatedly proclaimed policy of removing Assad and aiding the moderate opposition, because to do anything meaningful to advance its policy would have endangered the precious nuclear negotiations with Iran.
That unwillingness to carry through with its stated Syria policy has not changed since the Vienna deal on Iran’s nuclear program was signed last summer.
Nor will it for the next year, because, as the White House itself avows, the Iran agreement is the most significant achievement of Obama’s second term, his foreign-policy “ObamaCare.” Whatever assistance Washington now provides Syria’s moderate opposition, it won’t be sufficient to make a difference, as the embarrassing failures of Obama’s aid to the opposition so far already demonstrate. Expect no material change, therefore, until his successor takes office.
The next president will face the ruins left by Obama across the Middle East, a record of retreat and failure unparalleled in US history. Russia will be firmly entrenched, militarily and politically, in the portion of Syria the Assad regime still controls, and likely larger next January than it is now.
Whether Assad himself — or a Ba’ath Party clone — remains is less important than that the regime will still be dominant, perhaps with American complicity. The moderate opposition will be decimated, likely hanging on only in isolated positions, with no realistic strategic path forward.
ISIS is likely to continue controlling approximately the Syrian and Iraqi territory it now holds. Unless Assad has completely eliminated the moderate opposition, Russia will act against ISIS only to help the regime consolidate and secure its frontiers. The Kurds are likely to defend only their own territory. No one expects material increases in US and allied bombing or ground operations against ISIS.
Of course, the Syria problem has never been solely about Assad. It’s his supporters in Tehran, aided and abetted by the Kremlin’s siloviki, who have always been the main threat, through Iran’s nuclear program and its support for terrorism. After that is ISIS, a threat both in the region and globally.
Assad is a distant third. But here’s the bitter irony: Until recently, Syria was in fact a strategic sideshow. It was Obama’s inattentive foreign policy that has allowed Russia to expand its military presence significantly, elevating Syria to the same frontline status we increasingly see once again in Europe.
Defeating ISIS can be accomplished by working with Turkey, the Kurds and numerous Sunni Arab states, starting with the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs. We must not accept Assad’s regime, much less be complicit with it.
We will likely need to recognize the demise of Syria and Iraq, and create a new, secular Sunni state from their territory once ISIS is vanquished. America’s failure to act effectively against ISIS to date is readily reversible, and regional allies are all but begging for renewed attention to our own Middle East security interests.
Most importantly, the road to Damascus runs through Tehran. Our attention should be on regime change in Iran first. Only when the ayatollahs are swept aside is there even a glimmer of a chance for Middle East peace and security. Otherwise, their pursuit of nuclear weapons will continue unabated, as will their support for terrorism. No one should have any illusions on this point, especially the next president.
John Bolton, now at the American Enterprise Institute, was the US ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006.
This article was originally published by The New York Post.