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The Fig Leaf Falls from U.S. Syria Strategy

Walter Russell Mead

UPDATE: The White House has announced that it was prepared to engage in military-to-military talks with Russia over the fate of Syria. No word yet on the Russian response, if any.

Fast on the heels of the news that only four or five men are left in the Americas Syria force, President Obama is rethinking his Syria strategy, considering whether to replace the failed attempt to train a Syrian force with a new approach. More:

Under one proposal being crafted at the Pentagon, the $500 million train-and-equip program—a core component of the U.S. Syria strategy—would be supplanted by a more modest effort focused on creating specially trained militants empowered to call in U.S. airstrikes, defense officials said […]

“I’m someone who has supported the president on many issues, and on this one I think we’ve made a major mistake by being so standoffish and uninvolved,” said R. Nicholas Burns, who advised President George W. Bush on Iran policy as undersecretary of state for political affairs and U.S. representative to NATO.

“I hope that there will be a sea change in the administration, that they will recognize that they need a comprehensive policy. It may take years to succeed, but you’ve got to start,” Mr. Burns said. “If this administration doesn’t, no matter who we elect in 2016—Republican or Democrat—will have to.”

Its impossible for the White House to pretend anymore that Americas current Syria strategy is anything but a ruin. Even some of the President’s strongest defenders are throwing in the towel on his Syria strategy. One can only hope that the sheer magnitude of his failures in Syria will lead President Obama to review the assumptions that got him into this mess, but, at least at the moment, the Administration still seems convinced is the path to a solution in Syria involves getting buy in from Russia and Iran.

There are several problems with this approach. In the first place, Russia and Iran both want to erode U.S. power. Putin sees the United States as an enemy and adversary to be weakened and wounded however possible. That doesn’t mean he won’t, on occasion, bargain with us, or that we shouldnt bargain with him. But it does mean that he will ask a high price in any deals we do, give as little help as he can, and take any opportunity that arises to impose yet more pain on the Obama Administration. The same thing is true of the mullahs; the nuke deal, even if they stick to it, is justified in their minds as a way to weaken the American role in the region and to enhance their own.

But doing deals with Iran doesnt only give the country potential advantages over the U.S.; it also intensifies regional tensions. As long as the Sunnis see the U.S. looking for ways to cut a deal with Shi’a Iran, Sunni mistrust will grow, and Sunni support for radicals will grow. Obama’s approach to Syrian stability alienates the Sunni world and destabilizes the region he hopes to calm down.

The United States has the means to change the game in Syria. There are strategists in both the Pentagon and the State Department who have good ideas about how, even at this difficult moment, we could move toward a better future while keeping our risks and costs reasonably low. But it is getting harder every day. One of Putin’s goals is to close the jaws of the Syria trap shut on President Obama—putting him in a situation where he has no good options and indeed no acceptable bad ones.

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