I just returned a few days ago from yet another painful visit to the Middle East. The heat of Islamist terror is felt everywhere. The Syrian civil war has engulfed the entire region, and a full-fledged proxy war pitting the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey on one side against Russia, Iran, and Iraq on the other is tinder for ISIS' territorial expansion in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.
So in this latest round of failed international efforts to extinguish the Syrian inferno the Vienna Syria "end the war" conference that opened today conjures up in my mind an almost cartoonish image of President Obama and his national security staff presiding over setback after Syrian setback that I have documented for over five years in these pages.
Follow me briefly. There is Fire Chief Obama at Fire Station #1 comfortably sitting in front of his TV enjoying "SportsCenter." Firefighters Susan Rice, Valerie Jarrett, and Ben Rhodes - his trio of Middle East amigos -- playing cards upstairs. Years ago, the Syrian fire alarm goes off - a house is on fire. Obama yells down to the troops: "Let the other firehouse handle this one...the fire is pretty far away from us...no reason to waste a good gallon of gas." The troops are content to appease their chief. Soon thereafter, another alarm goes off...this time a two alarmer. Again, the Chief orders his subordinates to keep playing cards - they see no reason why ruin a good game.
The neighborhood is beginning to wonder what is going on...fires are breaking out and the fire engines aren't moving at all from the fire station.
Obama & Co. are smugly oblivious to the emerging threat around them. A huge fire breaks breaks out again...every engine house is called to respond. As the fire spreads rapidly toward Station #1 the Chief rouses himself from his TV and orders his firefighters to lend a few hoses, but try not to hurt the equipment. The blaze is shortly out of control...but Station #1 is unable to effectively respond and the firehouse itself is now in harm's way...Neither Rice nor Rhodes nor Jarrett have any real world firefighting training to douse such a large blaze, or for that matter, even a campfire. When it comes to the Middle East they wouldn't even have the foggiest notion how to use a kitchen fire extinguisher.
The Obama Administration's five year feeble and foolhardy response to the unfolding catastrophe in Syria since its civil war unleashed a full-fledged internecine Sunni-Shiite Middle East proxy war warrants full-throttled condemnation - and it is deservedly coming from all bi-partisan quarters except from isolationists like Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul and their supporters who have no comprehension or interest preserving the basic imperatives of American global interests.
The magnitude of policy reversals, missteps, and sheer policy ineptitude is on full display as the Vienna talks. Mysteriously, the White House couples the conference's convening with an announcement that it is reversing course and placing 50 Special Forces boots on the ground in Syria.
As a long term Democratic foreign policy adviser to Senator Edward Kennedy, President Carter, President Clinton and Vice President Gore's presidential campaign it is a sad but honest admission that Obama's White House national security staff lives in an alternative foreign policy Pollyannaish universe. The blind are leading the blind in the West Wing. Neither Obama nor his staff have the foggiest notion where we are, where we should be, where we should not be in Syria, and what to effectively do against ISIS without falling into incoherent mission creep that serves neither Americans nor our interests in the region.
Russia and Iran are now dictating the future of Syria. Obama is pretending - by dint of a token deployment of Special Forces and an increase in ineffective air attacks against ISIS -- that the U.S. suddenly out of nowhere has a coherent Syria strategy. Is this some sort of quasi-cold war tit for tat game Obama is playing? Putin dispatches his air force to pound Assad's adversaries so days later the U.S. unveils that it is deploying a MARGINAL, largely symbolic force of 50 ground troops into Syria? Don't buy one nickel of it. It smacks of a veiled effort to ward off critics at the expense of putting a token U.S. force in harm's way - and for what strategic objective?
What do our Special Forces gain by having the White House publicly tout their deployment. The element of un-surprise??? That now we have boots on the ground when Obama pledged never to have them on the ground? The deployment of additional Special Forces into Syria is fraught with danger and consequences. On any given day no one knows who is friend or foe other than the Syrian Kurds - who are steadfastly supporting the U.S. Every other allegiance is one of convenience. Syria is a barren MadMax moonscape - every inch a no-man's land other than Damascus city.
When Obama had a chance to salvage any Syria policy he ordered any and all to stand down.For months, Hillary Clinton (who rightfully championed years ago a forwardly engaged and coherent Syria policy only to be thwarted by the NSC jayvee squad) and any expert with an educated comprehension of Middle East policy has urged the White House to deploy forward air spotters into Syria to make our air campaign more effective against ISIS. Stubbornly, after thousands of failed sorties, Obama & Co. would have none of it. Now we suddenly have to deploy boots to demonstrate our geos-strategic toughness? If only the national security kids were not playing with matches.
His able Syrian envoy -- Robert Ford -- quit in disgust. The pattern continues. I recall back in 2011 that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton developed a thoughtful, articulate, coherent Syria policy with Ford's team only to be thwarted by the NSC jayvee squad that could not bear having Mrs. Clinton lead a Syria policy forward). She had carefully orchestrated a strategic coalition of Syrian moderates, Turkey, and Arabs to lay the groundwork for a systematic campaign of dual political and military support for what was then a worthy block of Syrian moderates at a time when the Assad regime was at its most vulnerable politically and militarily. On the eve of her departure to Istanbul for a carefully crafted "Friends of Syria" meeting Rhodes and Rice pulled the rug out from underneath her. Shameful. The alibi: Hillary wants boots on the grounds. Now look what has happened -- promises thrown to the winds for what appears to be nothing more than political expediency when you scratch the surface.
More recently, she, along with SecDefs Panetta and Carter, along with other experienced Democrats urged the White House to deploy forward air spotters into Syria to make our air campaign more effective against ISIS. Stubbornly, after thousands of failed sorties, Obama & Co. would have none of it. If only the national security kids were not playing with matches. All of this latest White House chest pounding is surely in response to the cacophony of criticism Obama tried mightily to shut down but could no longer do so. Even he could not mislead the country any longer how Putin and an unleashed Iran have outfoxed him and created the appearance of an America abandoning its essential allies in the Middle East.
Give John Kerry deserved credit. He has always understood the consequences of Syria to the U.S. generally and to the Democratic Party's foreign policy brand in particular. He realized what a calamity is befalling U.S. standing around the world as a result of Obama's naïve determination to write his version of Middle East history - that Obama extricated the U.S. from Iraq and Afghanistan, when in reality the reverse is true. So Mr. President, we now have boots on the ground in Syria and we have boots on the ground in Iraq. Meanwhile, the heavy lifting that should be shared by other Arab states is nowhere to be found.
The Vienna talks may have been slapped together without much forethought by our intrepid secretary of state in response to the escalating Russian and Iranian military intervention to save Assad. So what! At least there is an effort underway which would not have happened had Kerry not struggled to bring some adult supervision to the challenge. Recall every other prior attempt to convene a conference to achieve a path forward to end the bloodshed has failed miserably. Tell me what is the alternative? No international effort to extinguish the inferno? Failure is not an option. Kerry must keep trying and he deserves support in his endeavor. Other than Assad, who would want to see Kerry fail? Not I or the millions of innocent Syrians desperate for glimmer of hope and an end to the murder and mayhem.
However, make no mistake about it, Kerry's compromised much to get Vienna off the ground. Actually, I do not question what he had to do to lure Putin and the Iranians to Vienna. These are "inside the Beltway" prices, but prices worth paying. In a complete about- face the U.S. acceded to Russian demands that Iran be permitted to attend the Vienna talks. This is an acknowledgement of "realpolitik" given that Iran has been pouring ground forces into Syria in coordination with Russia's new air offensive. And don't expect the White House to be calling for Assad's ouster anytime soon. Here, too, Russia and Iran have trumped Obama. Assad's departure now runs into the cruel reality there is no one to take his place. In order to get Iran and Russia to agree to a Vienna meeting the U.S. formally conceded that Assad -- the ONLY source of the Syrian calamity -- is now an essential part of the solution and his longevity will be the subject less of Obama's empty hubris but of concessions imposed on us by the new Syrian Russo-Iranian Axis. Mark my words, Assad will not be long for this world -- one way or the other.
At the same time as Iran dispatches its foreign minister to Vienna the Supreme Leader doesn't want anyone to believe Iran is cozying up to Obama's post Iran nuclear agreement mirage of regional cooperation. He ordered his secret policy to arrest Iranian-American business leader and scholar Siamak Amazi as a scapegoat to serve notice on Washington that even the appearance of cooperation with Tehran will extract a price on innocent Americans. Ayatollah Khamenei has no intention to reward this White House with any crowing rights.
Even more ruthlessly, the Supreme Leader ordered on the eve of Iran's attendance at Vienna a brazen, cowardly attack on American Iranian allies held at Camp Liberty in Baghdad. The coordinated missile and mortar attacked killed almost 30 innocent pro-American Iranians opposed to the Iranian regime and wounded scores of others -- refugees that the U.S. had pledged to protect and to help facilitate their evacuation from Iraq where they faced daily danger. The attack constituted a brazen "in your face" example of Iran's belief that the nuclear accord has diminished any American capacity to do anything against Iran whenever and where ever it acts contrary to U.S. interests. And all the while, American journalists and civilians are in prison in Tehran and the number of those detained grows each month after the nuclear accord, rather than diminishes.
The more Syria resembles a devil's Rubik Cube, the harder it is to keep sight of the best possible outcome. Salvaging Assad's regime until an international agreement can be cobbled together to create a sustainable Syrian transitional government is likely a year or two away AT BEST. The warring parties that control the terrain have no interest letting foreign powers dictate the outcome...yet. Never underestimate the willpower of extremists and tribal elders to march into oblivion and to take anyone with them for the sake of glory and Islamist honor.
Let us not forget that the Assad family has ruthlessly ruled Syria for over 50 years, and Russia has been the Assads' benefactor for just as long. Russia has had a major Mediterranean naval base at Tartus has served as the principal supplier of arms to the Assads for decades. Russia has a compelling geostrategic imperative to keep a Shiite regime in power in Syria to thwart an extremist Sunni takeover because that will only accelerate Islamist terror attacks in the Russian Caucuses. Putin is playing a classic geopolitical balance of power maneuver. He is not wedded to Assad - far from it. Putin will throw Assad under the bus whenever it is strategically useful for him to do so. All Russia desires is to midwife a Syrian proxy regime to legitimate and protect Russia's military presence in Syria and help prevent an Islamic extremist army marching north into Russia.
Conversely, the U.S. has no strategic interest in Syria other than doing whatever necessary to prevent its civil war from toppling the moderate, pro-western governments in Jordan and Lebanon, and aiding Israel to protect its northern border against Islamic State and Al Nusra Front incursions into the Golan Heights. At the same time, there is nary a nation left in the region that has confidence in neither American policy nor its word.
What is missing from this picture? An effective effort to dismantle ISIS and to break apart its territorial lock on the corridor linking its Syrian capital of Raqqa and its Iraqi capital of Mosul. That is where U.S. failure is on maximum display. If only Mr. Kerry had been spending half as much time cobbling together an ARAB-TURKISH-EUROPEAN expeditionary force to split ISIS territory in two as he is worrying about Putin's latest Syrian adventures we would be better off. NOTE: Turkey's national elections are next week and there is good chance that a new, more pro-U.S. government will emerge. hear the critics now - "not realistic!" Well, show me the proof that the effort has even been attempted. ISIS is Job#1 for the U.S. Yes, as long as Assad as in power, he is a walking magnet for more Sunni extremist recruits, but let's get our priorities right once. It does not mean placing American boots on the ground in Syria. It means placing other boots on the ground while the U.S. provides the logistical and air support.
It is inevitable that the Syria of today is going to disintegrate into a bunch of inedible pieces. The U.S. cannot salvage nor should it worry about salvaging Syria. If the President does not want to slip further down the slippery slope of mission creep that he now has been forced to slide down on -- dolloping out Special Forces troops is not the answer; increasing ineffective air sorties against ISIS is not the answer. In this mess of recrimination and strife the U.S. and Russia ultimately share common goals -- ridding Syria of the Assad family, vanquishing Sunni Islamic terrorists organizations such as Al Nusra and ISIS, and destroying the Islamic State. If only the Obama Administration had the talent to figure out how to get to the end zone without constantly fumbling that ball.
Secretary Kerry is quarter-backing without any receivers.