Where’s the plan for dealing with post-Assad Syria?

Michael Young writes about the possible consequences of Mr Obama's failures in Syria while chasing a deal with Iran.

Barack Obama has never taken the war in Syria very seriously, argues Michael Young. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
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After the fall of Ramadi to ISIL last week, American policy came under renewed criticism. Far from degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL, as Barack Obama had promised, the United States was helpless to prevent it from expanding.

That’s a consequence of Mr Obama’s policy in the Middle East designed to guarantee minimal American involvement. But it’s also true that America’s Iraqi allies have proven incapable of fighting ISIL effectively, while efforts to arm a Sunni national guard were blocked by Iraqi Shia politicians close to Iran.

American lethargy is especially evident in Syria. The potential consequences of getting Syria wrong are serious. What happens could undermine efforts to contain ISIL in Iraq, and could create a situation in which Washington finds itself a prisoner of the Middle East, despite Mr Obama’s aim to ensure the contrary.

It is remarkable that even as the regime of Bashar Al Assad has started to collapse, the Obama administration still has not formulated a clear Syria policy. Instead, it has slogans and a vague plan to train Syrian “moderates” to fight ISIL, a foolish scheme that is bound to fail, particularly as the dynamics of the Syrian conflict shift to removing Mr Al Assad.

Nor has the United States shown much conviction in advancing this strategy. The force it is organising has taken for ever to be armed and trained. The Americans want combatants who will fight ISIL, believing, naively, that if the Assad regime begins disintegrating, these men will continue to serve American interests and not seek to be in on the kill of the regime.

Far more disturbing is that the Obama administration appears to have taken no well-defined positions on what should happen once Mr Al Assad goes. His exit may not be imminent, but as the regime loses ground in the north, south and east, due to the Syrian army’s inability to mobilise enough troops, Mr Al Assad’s days appear to be numbered.

The problem is that Mr Obama has never taken the war in Syria very seriously. When the US president led a military effort against ISIL last summer, he pointedly avoided formulating a plan for Syria. Aside from the boilerplate about not helping Mr Al Assad, he still has not integrated Syria into his anti-ISIL campaign.

Even this refusal to cooperate with the Syrian regime has been ambiguous. In a talk before the Council on Foreign Relations in March, CIA director John Brennan said the administration did not want to see the collapse of the Assad regime, and above all did not want to see Muslim extremists march into Damascus.

Mr Brennan was not quite endorsing Mr Al Assad. Rather, Washington worries that a catastrophic breakdown of his rule could leave a vacuum that is exploited by jihadist groups. Fair enough, but Mr Al Assad is going regardless, and the Americans have to adapt to this rapidly changing reality.

Instead, the Obama administration has been focused on ensuring that Congress will not block a nuclear deal with Iran, which remains to be finalised. Given this concern, it is not surprising that Mr Obama has been so standoffish on Syria. Why allow the situation there to become another obstacle to improved American ties with Tehran?

Mr Obama’s preference seems to be to use an agreement with Iran as a platform on which to build a consensus over Syria, one that brings Iran and Saudi Arabia closer together. If that’s the idea, then officials in Washington are, again, ignoring the dynamics in Syria. The Saudis, like the Turks and Jordanians, see that Iran is losing. Therefore, they have no incentive to reach a deal that preserves Iranian interests.

At a meeting between US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on May 11, there were also no signs of Russian flexibility over Syria. Despite reports that the Russians, like the Iranians, are beginning to tire of Mr Al Assad, they will only compromise over him once they feel they have no other choice. So, both the backers and foes of the Syrian regime are in no mood yet to negotiate over his future.

A deal with Iran may loosen up Iranian funds to help the Syrian regime survive a bit longer, making prospects of an Iranian-Saudi arrangement over Syria far less plausible. That’s why Mr Obama should not remain on the fence. Only by raising the heat on Mr Al Assad can he hope to accelerate talks leading to a solution in Syria.

America also has to integrate Syria more actively into its broader anti-ISIL operations. And the administration must work more closely with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar to define a desirable Syrian endgame, and how to achieve it.

Mr Obama has so ignored Syria that his influence has waned. Regardless of talks with Iran, the president must end the Syria war first and ensure that what follows is stable. If it loses Syria, Iran may be more accommodating, and the Arabs will have greater confidence to talk to Tehran.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling