Obama’s legacy is tarnished as Putin fills the vacuum in Syria

This is now Mr Obama’s legacy: the abyss gazing back, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
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‘Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster,” warned Nietzsche. “For when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

Russian tanks rolling into Hama, its air force bombing Idlib, its missiles flying from the Caspian, its fighter jets violating Turkish airspace – all of it backed by the familiar language of the “war on terror” – is the abyss staring back at an America that, in search of monsters to destroy, has helped legitimise monstrous deeds.

Vladimir Putin can face little resistance if he bombs an ambulance in Idlib when a US gunship incinerates a hospital in Kunduz. Bashar Al Assad can get away with murder because he has conveniently pronounced his opponents "terrorists".

As long as the US carries the dead weight of the war on terror, it will have neither the agility to respond to crises nor the moral authority to restrain its wayward – or inadvertent – allies. When Mr Putin volunteered his forces to join a war on terror in Syria, Mr Obama had little choice but to assent. Russia, unlike the US, however has targeted mainly anti-Assad forces, some of them said to be US-backed. But Washington's feeble complaints ring hollow when the US has itself set the precedent in targeting anti-ISIL groups.

One reason Mr Obama embraced counterterrorism over counterinsurgency is that the latter involves substantial resources, political flexibility and boots on the ground. Counterterrorism absolves one of such responsibility. One does not have to be attuned to the politics, history or culture of a place to bomb it – as long as one perceives oneself invulnerable to the blowback. Drones, special operations and local proxies thus became the preferred means of waging war in the Obama administration. The costs were deferred on to the targeted populations.

In an infamous policy called “signature strike”, the administration even bombed people, including rescuers and mourners, without knowing their identity, certain that only civilians in the region would be exposed to likely retaliation.

For his two terms in office, this policy ensured that Mr Obama would earn kudos for his successes while the costs of his failures were borne by others. He could project toughness by ordering assassinations from Waziristan to Somalia without ever having to confront an adversary equal in might.

Mr Obama’s greatest victories have been at the podium: he is a gifted orator. But where his capacity for delivering inspirational homilies is unparalleled, many have sensed invertebracy when it comes to actions. At home and abroad, Mr Obama’s resolve has proved elastic.

Mr Putin is made of sterner stuff. But the kudos he has earned for his recent bold moves in Syria is overstated. Mr Putin is no master of the chess board. As his political opponent, the former grandmaster Gary Kasporov, notes, Mr Putin is only "good at playing poker with a weak hand against anxious opponents who fold against his every bluff". Mr Putin's confidence is merely a function of his opponent's weakness.

Mr Obama betrayed his hand long ago when failed to match hot rhetoric with even modest action. His resolve was tested and was found wanting. Mr Al Assad brazenly breached his “red line”by using chemical weapons in August 2013 and, instead of suffering consequences, he was rewarded. Confident of American inaction, Mr Al Assad killed three times as many civilians in the 28 months after the chemical attack as he had in the 28 months before. Russia and Iran were watching.

The conflict in Syria is often described as a “proxy war” between the US and Russia. Syrian rebels are rarely mentioned without the obligatory prefix “US-backed”. (The regime army on the other hand isn’t often described as “Russian-backed”.) The backing, though tangible, takes distinctly different forms; and the support that the contending parties have received reflects the character of their patrons.

Not used to doing things by half, Russia has supplied the Syrian regime with bombers, gunships, armour and missiles. The US, on the other hand, has spent many years trying to ensure that no anti-aircraft weapon would reach Syrian rebels lest it affect its ally Israel’s ability to bomb Syria with impunity. Instead, its support has taken the form of non-lethal aid, such as night-vision goggles and satellite phones. It took many years before it supplied outdated TOW anti-tank missiles but has refrained from passing on any game-changing technology.

It has been reported that part of Mr Obama’s reluctance to act affirmatively in Syria has stemmed from his concern that it might undermine delicate negotiations with Iran over a nuclear deal – a deal that he hopes will be his legacy. Mr Obama may have paid a high price for securing a legacy that is now being humiliatingly unravelled by his own supposed partners. Reuters reported that around the time the nuclear deal was being finalised, the top Iranian commander was in Moscow, lobbying Mr Putin to intervene in Syria to shore up Mr Al Assad.

Several months on, with Russian Sukhoi jets finally bombing Hama, the Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei has announced a ban on all further negotiations with the US. Meanwhile, Mr Obama’s credibility was further undermined by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, who told CNN that, in a call with Mr Putin, Mr Obama had actually welcomed the Russian intervention.

Russian actions in Syria are an act of aggression against the country’s beleaguered people. Yet, beyond mealy-mouthed statements – and the silent hope that Syria would become Russia’s second Afghanistan – the US has done little to challenge this. Indeed, on several occasions, US officials’ commitment to the war on terror ideology has obliged them to welcome Russia as a potential partner against ISIL. Little thought is given to the toll this might extract, given Russia’s looser definition of a terrorist, and what an emboldened Mr Putin might do next.

“In all times and places,” said Thomas Hobbes, “nature abhors a vacuum.” The vacuum Mr Obama left in Syria has been filled by Mr Putin. This is now Mr Obama’s legacy: the abyss gazing back. At least we can now recognise that the war on terror is also a war of terror.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a lecturer in journalism at the University of Stirling. He is the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War

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