On the last day of the Paris climate talks, President Barack Obama issued an ominous warning to Russian president Vladimir Putin against intervening in Syria's civil war to preserve President Bashar al-Assad's regime. To emphasize his desire for regime change, Obama declared that al-Assad must leave his office as a condition of any negotiation.
Coupled with the refusal to negotiate with any group as long as they do not accept the ultimate goal of Assad's removal from power, this insistence for regime change makes it impossible for several important groups, including Russia, to come to the table. ISIS's main territories are in Syria and Iraq. Many Americans believe that our primary mission in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East should be to destroy ISIS; regime change should not be an obstacle to that primary goal.
Obama elaborated on his remarks by reminding Putin of Russia's defeat in Afghanistan and the large losses they encountered during their fight in the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s. (Obama left unsaid that Russia's losses in Afghanistan were due primarily to the U.S. arms and training provided to the Taliban in their war with Russia. The Taliban's most lethal U.S. weapon was the U.S.-supplied infrared guided missiles to shoot down Russian jets.)
The implications of Obama's words are obvious. If Russia continues to prop up Bashar al-Assad to stay in power, we will make the Russian army pay a heavy price like we did in Afghanistan. The big difference is that the war in Afghanistan was a proxy war against Russia; in Syria the two countries' militaries are nearly facing each other.
The lessons from our misguided policy of regime change in Iraq and Libya should have been sufficient to avoid another war for regime change. In Iraq, our invasion destroyed the country and devastated a culture. Iraq is reduced to a dismembered nation with intermittent civil war. The invasion devastated Iraq's economy, education and healthcare and displaced a third of Iraq's population. (Some interests are primary however; Iraqi oil keeps flowing to the West). Former Saddam's government officials lead and assist ISIS after the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
After the removal of Gaddafi in Libya four years ago, the country descended into a civil war. The cost of the war in Libya is high in all sectors. The country is also devastated, dismembered and without central leadership. (But certainly the flow of oil from Libya to the West also remains uninterrupted.)
President Obama's Oval Office speech to the nation on December 6 acknowledged the risks associated with massive troops in Middle East but the president made no mention of backing away from regime change in Syria. Does the American government understand why some Arabs and Muslims that felt the brunt of our policy in the Middle East are not so friendly to us right now?
Policy implementation in the Middle East, especially in fighting the burgeoning threat of ISIS, depends on the trust of the citizens of these nations. Iraq and Libya may have taught our policy makers to be more cautious, but regime change in Syria continues to be our policy. This imposed regime change in Syria could lead to the devastation of the country. This will only serve to gather more people of the region into groups that oppose our policies. It would only create more hate directed to us.
The potential for military conflict between the U.S. and Russia is real. The plethora of fighting personnel and lethal equipment such as jets, rockets and missiles in close proximity with differing policy goals could deteriorate into a shooting war. It could begin with an unintended spark between the two countries. The rhetoric could escalate, especially during an election year in the U.S., already full of demagoguery. There is a real chance for catastrophic loss of lives on both sides. No one can predict the outcome.
Our policy towards Russia should be to increase layers of cooperation and dialogue in order to intertwine both interests together for the sake of peace. Regime change in Syria is fraught with dangers and needs to be abandoned. A reasonable approach is for the United Nations to call for a ceasefire and for the suspension of interference from U.S., Russia, Iran and Turkey. This conflict should be made smaller; we need to begin to let the Syrian people resolve their own conflict.