President Obama has described the Syrian civil war a “quagmire” — and indeed he finds himself drawn ever deeper into that intractable problem and the associated war in Iraq.
Just over nine months ago, President Obama criticized Russia for deploying military forces to Syria in support of the embattled government of Bashar al-Assad and he predicted disaster. “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work,” he declared.
But earlier this month he sent Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow to work out a cooperative plan to share the job of pacifying Syria with Russia, a plan that appears to leave Assad in control. Emerging from his meetings with the Russian foreign minister, Mr. Kerry said they had agreed on “concrete steps.” At a news conference in London he said the United States and Russia “believe we have an understanding of the direction we are going in and what needs to be achieved.”
Speculation about the new U.S.-Russian agreement is that it includes intelligence sharing and joint operational planning, with the Russians going after an al-Qaida branch in Syria known as Nusra while the U.S. focuses on helping Syrians and Iraqis fight the Islamic State.
Last week U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter assembled representatives of some 30 nations outside Washington, D.C., to discuss how to deal with ISIS. The U.S. commanding officer in the Middle East, Gen. Joseph Votel, said the United States will probably “add additional capabilities” above the 5,000 troops already committed in Iraq and Syria “necessary to accomplish our objectives.”
Soon U.S. forces in Iraq will reach levels that existed in 2011 before Mr. Obama withdrew them all, a move that helped Islamic State rapidly gain dominance in a large part of that nation and Syria.
A key objective in Syria sought by Mr. Kerry is the reinstitution of a ceasefire for attacks on civilians, especially around and in the rebel-held city of Aleppo, by grounding the Syrian Air Force. To obtain this he has apparently been willing to concede the Russian and Iranian objective of keeping the Assad government in power, perhaps without President Assad at the top.
But despite his initial optimism about Russia’s willingness to help protect civilians, Mr. Kerry on Friday expressed a concern that a new Russian plan to create safe corridors for civilians to evacuate Aleppo, where they have only two weeks of food supplies left, could be a ruse designed mainly to bring the city under Mr. Assad’s control.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch reports that Russia and Syria have both used cluster bombs to suppress rebels in Aleppo. Again, Russian priorities stress the survival of Mr. Assad over humanitarian concerns.
Given the deep divisions in Syria, propping up an unpopular government will be, as Mr. Obama suggested last fall, a very iffy proposition. What, for example, will become of our ally, the Syrian Kurds who now bear the brunt of the campaign to drive Islamic State out of the towns and cities it has occupied in Syria? These forces will surely not agree to lay down their arms for an Assad government.
Mr. Obama’s hopes of disengaging from the Middle East have clearly failed, leaving the United States as involved as ever but weaker on the ground and still searching for a successful strategy.