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Unexpectedly, The Middle East Meltdown Continues
Russian warcrafts hit the Syrian opposition controlled town Daret Ezza in Aleppo, Syria on October 13, 2015. (Mamun Abu Omer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Unexpectedly, The Middle East Meltdown Continues

Walter Russell Mead & Nicholas M. Gallagher

Vladmir Putin isn’t challenging U.S. leadership in the Middle East, President Obama declared in an interview with 60 Minutes filmed on October 6 and broadcast on October 11, “and the fact that [Russia and Iran] had to [send troops to Syria] is not an indication of strength, it’s an indication that their strategy did not work.” In a contentious dialogue that drew repeated, incredulous interjections from interviewer Steve Kroft, the President insisted that those both in the Middle East and Republican Party who questioned his approach wanted to commit “several hundred thousand” U.S. combat troops to “police the region”.

The Commander-in-Chief went on to share that he had always been skeptical of U.S.-backed train-and-equip efforts in Syria. The skepticism seems justified, though the President seems unwilling to acknowledge that many of his critics warned him they would. In a truly shambolic series of darkly comic failures, President Obama’s initiative budgeted $500 million and fielded a few dozen fighters, most of whom were quickly captured or neutralized.

Is this a sample of the kind of leadership that poor, bumbling President Putin will never understand? In any case, President Obama cited the Paris climate change accords and the international anti-ISIS coalition as examples of the kind of true leadership that Vlad the Imploder cannot match. “Over time, the community of nations will all get rid of [ISIS]”, the U.S. President intoned, and a “transition”, with buy-in from “key players”, could take care of Syria.

Apparently, when people around the world think of President Obama’s approach to Syria, “leadership” should be the first word that pops into mind. “Success”, he wants us to believe, is the second.

There is a germ of truth in President Obama’s defense; Vladimir Putin is neither willing nor able to provide the kind of leadership that has marked American policy at its best since World War Two. The United States is an order-building power, working at the construction of an international system in which all nations can prosper and live in peace even as it seeks to protect its own security and advance its own economic interests. In the Soviet days, Moscow was trying to oppose this system with a counter-order based on the state that Lenin built and the economic achievements of Stalin. The counter-order collapsed of its own inefficiency and loathsomeness; today’s Kremlin has found no alternative vision to replace it. Russia today seeks to disrupt, undermine and ultimately dismantle America’s order building will and capacity; President Obama wants to uphold and extend it.

This much, President Obama has right. But what President Obama doesn’t acknowledge, or at least didn’t on 60 Minutes, is that while he is a constructive statesman and Putin is a destroyer, Putin is having much more success ripping bits of the order down than Obama is having holding it together. President Obama may be the high school principal and Putin nothing more than a juvenile delinquent, but the school walls are covered with graffiti, the principal is being mocked as a loser by both teachers and students, his car has been egged, and he’s got a “Kick Me” sign taped to his back.

The weekend’s news from the Middle East brought yet more evidence that Principal Obama has lost control of the school. The New York Times reported that Iran has test-fired a long-range missile, a move that the strongly pro-Obama Times speculated was in violation of the nuclear agreement’s ban on developing missiles “designed to carry nuclear warheads“—but good luck making that stick. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal told us that Putin seems to be stepping up the deliveries of S-300 surface-to-air missiles that will render Iran’s regional activities—not just its nuclear sites—less vulnerable to outside interference, particularly from the air forces of the Sunni Gulf monarchies—i.e. America’s regional allies. Together with the admitted collapse of Obama’s multi-year effort to train and arm Syrian rebels, Putin’s successful air raids on American backed resistance forces and Assad’s gains on the ground following Putin’s intervention, this was a weekend from Hell for President Obama’s Middle East policy. Yet the President seems undismayed; he has resolved to stay the course. This is the most unsettling news of all.

Some of President Obama’s critics accuse him of lacking a strategy for the Middle East. This is far from the truth. From where the President sits, the Administration has a Middle East strategy, and it is just given him a huge success. The Iran nuclear deal, a deal that the President rammed through in defiance of his domestic critics, leaving them helplessly wringing their hands, is, the President believes, a triumph of American order building. Taking the nuclear issue off the table, and opening the door to a different kind of U.S.-Iran relationship will, President Obama believes, lead to a more peaceful region that requires less U.S. presence and power to police.

So how is this strategy working? The Iran deal was signed last Bastille Day, July 14, 2015—yet few observers are hailing that event as the kind of turning point the President wants. Post-deal, Iran and Russia are more hostile, and are working together in unprecedented ways to obstruct U.S. interests in the region and undermine U.S. leadership globally, America’s allies are less and not more confident in the value of the alliance, and from Turkey to Libya the forces of chaos are making more visible progress than the forces of order. As Laura Rozen, a journalist generally sympathetic both to President Obama and the Iran deal, said in a tweet:


One problem is that while President Obama saw the nuclear deal as an opportunity to bridge divides with Iran, both Russia and Iran saw the negotiation as an opportunity to advance an anti-American agenda. While President Obama and his negotiating team were hunting for compromises and mutually face-saving agreements. Russia was looking for ways to turn the deal into a formula for destabilizing the region at Washington’s expense. Thus Russia insisted at the 11th hour in the negotiations on the lifting of a conventional weapons export ban. And even as President Obama scrambled to dodge Congressional scrutiny of the deal, Iran unhelpfully insisted that U.S. domestic debate consisted a material breach of the deal and rattled its sabers at home.

Instead of seeing the deal as the start of a new era of cooperation, Russia and Iran, as the WSJ recently reported, immediately began planning Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict—without, of course, telling their new friend and partner President Obama what they had in mind. These negotiations, which may even have been taking place while the nuclear deal was being hammered out, were advanced by General Soleimani’s visit to Moscow. In late August, rumors of a major Russian presence in Syria began making their way into the press; by early September, Western outlets confirmed the delivery of equipment and the presence of “advisors”. On September 27, with the Russian presence in Syria open knowledge, President Putin used his U.N. General Assembly speech to call for international support of Assad and a broad anti-ISIS coalition—but then turned around and struck seemingly every rebel group in Syria but ISIS. To add insult to injury, despite extensive U.S. efforts to set up military-to-military communications with Russia (in order to achieve “deconfliction”, i.e. avoid unintentional shooting), the Russians announced the timing of the first strikes by having a general stroll into the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and drop the news that they’d begin within an hour. This is the diplomatic equivalent of kicking sand in the face; it is a studied and deliberate insult. The attacks the general mentioned, presumably not coincidentally, hit U.S.-backed groups particularly hard.

Not content with that, Russia announced an intelligence-sharing pact with Iraq, Syria, and Iran and arranged for reconnaissance flyovers of Iraqi airspace (where the U.S. also operates). Iraqi Shi’a lawmakers and militia leaders, seemingly at the instigation of Iran, began calling for direct Russian military involvement in Iraq, claiming that the U.S. had been ineffective in providing assistance. Russian airplanes flying missions in Syria have also violated Turkish—i.e. NATO—airspace, leading to confrontations with Turkish jets.

Late last week, the Syrian government announced that a new major offensive, including troops from the Assad regime, Iran, and Hezbollah, backed by Russian airpower, was underway. Now, Iran has nixed further talks with the U.S., begun to push back on the nuclear deal, and announced the conviction of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian of an unspecified crime. Rezaian, held captive by Iran since his arrest in July 2014, famously and controversially was not freed as part of the nuclear deal.

It’s still possible, of course, that sometime down the road the nuclear agreement will start to have the kind of soothing impact the President expected. But we aren’t there yet. The very countries President Obama most wanted to conciliate have stepped up a campaign designed to embarrass and humiliate him, even as they frustrate his policy goals.

If the deal hasn’t reconciled us to our adversaries, it’s also not doing much for relations with our friends. Even as the deal moved closer to ‘success’, our traditional friends fell into a panic. The Saudis have intervened in Yemen, moved closer to the Muslim Brotherhood and have stepped up their contributions to the kind of radical rebels in Syria that the United States does not want to see armed. Funding flows from the Gulf to radical groups are on the increase, and, alarmed by the specter of a rising Iran and a retreating America, Sunnis across the region are beginning to look with more favor on radical Islamists as their best line of defense against Shia attacks.

Meanwhile, the broader region continues to melt down. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister-turned-President that President Obama spoke with more than almost any other head of state in his first term, has become a destructive force within and beyond his frontiers. The leader Obama (and many others) once saw as a model of enlightened, democratic Islamism, has cynically stoked the Kurdish conflict in Turkey and attacked the Kurds in Syria. Hellbent on reversing an early-summer electoral defeat that thwarted his plans to rewrite the Turkish constitution, Erdogan lashing out wherever he can, without reference to Obama’s priorities or plans. President Obama’s Iraq strategy is in as much trouble as his Syria strategy; despite the U.S. help Obama extended, there’s little chance the Iraqi forces will retake Ramadi anytime soon. The country seems to be deepening its links to the Russia-Iran axis, creating a powerful anti-American bloc in the heart of the Middle East. To complete the grim Iraq picture, riots have broken out in Iraqi Kurdistan over problems. Factionalism has been the traditional bane of the Kurds; a recurrence of infighting would significantly weaken the one group in the region that seems to remain disposed to working with Washington.

Further south, a third intifada may be brewing in Israel, Lebanon and Egypt are in a semi-perpetual state of emergency, and the civil war rages in Yemen. And in Europe, the refugee crisis, driven by Syria, is adding additional stress to the already severely strained EU and several local governments—a fact that Putin significantly raised in his UNGA speech. If you want to stop the flow, come talk to Moscow, was the not-so-subtle message.

The nuclear deal isn’t the cause of all these woes, but it isn’t the solution to any of them. President Obama has tried to change Russian and Iranian behavior by stroking them: hitting the “Reset” button with Russia, signing a nuclear agreement with Iran. If they were constructive powers, this might work. Given an opportunity to cooperate with the United States on building an international order that took their interests into account, constructive countries and order-oriented leaders would embrace that opportunity.

But what if that isn’t what Russia and Iran want? What if their opposition to American order-building efforts runs deep? What do Russia and Iran have to do to teach President Obama that ‘No’ means ‘No’?

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