In early October, Obama warned that the Russian air campaign targeting the Syrian rebels, which had just begun, threatened to draw Putin into a “quagmire.” The D.C. foreign policy “smart set” and the establishment media that have been cheerleaders for Obama’s Syria policy since 2011 dutifully followed along with the received “quagmire” narrative.
Now, four months later, the rebel stronghold of Aleppo — Syria’s largest city and former commercial center — is surrounded, and Obama’s entire Syria policy teeters on the verge of complete defeat.
The rebels, now completely abandoned by the Obama administration, walked out of the peace talks in Geneva last week, and their future is looking bleak.
Here’s a sampling of media over the past few days:
Washington Post – Syrian rebels are losing Aleppo and perhaps also the war (Feb. 4)
The Daily Beast – Is this game over for Assad’s enemies? (Feb. 6)
Voice of America – Moderate Syrian rebel factions face wipe-out (Feb. 7)
That’s quite a reversal from when the Institute for the Study of War, one of the primary advocates for U.S. backing of the Syrian rebels, was dismissive of the Assad regime gains only days into the Russian intervention.
The current situation on the ground is dramatically opposite the scenario laid out by Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who in late October crowed that Russia’s intervention was “not going particularly well.” A few days later, Blinken gave a speech in Bahrain laying out the Obama administration’s “quagmire” narrative:
Russia cannot afford to sustain its military onslaught against everyone opposed to Assad’s brutal rule. The costs will mount every day in economic, political, and security terms — but at best only to prevent Assad from losing, not to make him win. There is no military victory to be had.
Meanwhile the quagmire will spread and deepen, drawing Russia further in. And Russia will be seen to be in league with Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran — alienating millions of Sunnis in Syria, the region, and in Russia itself. Already, Russia’s indiscriminate air campaign — while dropping many bombs — is making virtually no gains on the ground.
Obama restated his administration’s position on December 1, when he warned again of Russia becoming “bogged down in an inconclusive and paralyzing civil conflict.”
Below, a small sampling of the foreign policy “smart set” and establishment media outlets that have apparently not revisited Obama or Blinken’s remarks, and obligingly followed the administration’s “quagmire” narrative over the past few months:
Vox – Assad’s first big Russia-backed campaign is not going well (Oct. 15)
IHS Jane’s – Syria government territorial gains just 0.4% since Russian military intervention (Nov. 19)
Politico – Putin bogging down in Syria (Dec. 10)
The Atlantic – The danger of Putin losing in Syria (Jan. 8)
Remarkably, not even a month ago an article ran in Bloomberg Business titled “Putin’s quagmire in Syria proves Obama prescient“:
U.S. President Barack Obama, facing criticism at home over his Islamic State strategy, is turning out to be right with his prediction that Vladimir Putin’s own campaign in Syria will descend into a quagmire.
Many senior officials in Moscow underestimated how long the operation in support of Bashar al-Assad would take when Putin entered Syria’s civil war on Sept. 30 and no longer talk in terms of just a few months, with one saying the hope now is that it won’t last several years.
Undoubtedly, we’ll hear in the next few days how Obama predicted the success of Putin’s offensive.
There are a few important takeaways from Obama’s change in fortunes in Syria:
— Beginning of the end?
By no means is the battle for Syria over, nor is victory for the Assad regime assured notwithstanding the assistance from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. But the loss of Aleppo by the rebels will definitely give the momentum to the regime. The rollback of the rebels also severely weakens the self-proclaimed opposition trying to negotiate Assad out of office.
Still, this is war we’re talking about, which by its nature is unpredictable. But the Russian “quagmire” narrative is definitely old and busted.
A rebel loss will be ISIS’s gain:
Assad is not the only winner from the rebels’ misfortune. ISIS, which has been pressured with Kurdish forces in the northeast (with U.S. assistance), is already pressing rebel positions in the western part of the country, and will continue to do so.
A new wave of refugees:
The current offensive around Aleppo has already driven more than 70,000 new refugees to the border with Turkey. That number is expected to climb to more than 100,000. So far, the border has been closed to them. But if the border is in fact opened, that will most likely send more refugees streaming towards EU states and aggravating the political crisis there.
Lost American credibility:
The Obama administration’s Syrian policy since 2011 can charitably be called inconsistent. Reckless and chaotic would be more honest descriptions. And it isn’t clear that the administration’s current floundering is serving anyone’s interest, including our own. Our Sunni allies that have backed the rebels against Assad aren’t expressing much confidence in Obama’s leadership. The rebels themselves openly resent their betrayal (my antipathy for the Syrian rebels has been well documented here) and have publicly bickered with Kerry and other State Department officials over the weekend. Rightfully, no one trusts anything the administration says.
So now that we are into Obama’s last year in office, the complete collapse of his Syrian policy weakens him internationally, and gives GOP presidential hopefuls yet another policy failure to beat Hillary Clinton with.
Presumably Putin will be quick to press his advantage in Eastern Europe and elsewhere during the remainder of Obama’s lame duck term, potentially creating even more crises for Obama and America’s allies. Even Fred Hof, Obama’s former adviser on Syrian transition and one of the architects of the present disaster, whines in the current issue of Newsweek about Putin’s success at Obama’s expense.
The battle for Syria may go on, but Obama’s ability — and that of his successor, whomever it may be — to influence events there is diminishing rapidly.