The US and the Syrian conflict: reasons, rhetoric and consequences of an absence – Interview with prof. Michael A. Reynolds

Michael A. Reynolds is Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East  and an Associate Professor in Princeton’s Department of Near Eastern Studies.

1- Professor Reynolds, how do you explain the US Government’s substantial lack of intervention in the Syrian conflict and negotiations, which is contributing to Russia’s ascent in the Middle East?

The Obama administration’s reluctance to intervene in Syria stemmed from two factors. The first was the realization that the American people had grown weary of foreign interventions. It is difficult to argue that this weariness is not well founded. Not only have interventions in places like Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan been far costlier than America’s foreign policy elites had predicted, those interventions have just as often as not made things worse. A lack of resources cannot explain these failures. America has expended an extraordinary amount of treasure, and a considerable amount of blood, in interventions in the Middle East. To cite just one example, under Obama the US Department of Defense in one program reportedly expended roughly $500 million to train the Syrian opposition. Yet that program could produce only a mere handful of fighters.

The second factor is related to the first. This was the reluctant recognition that, absent an American invasion of Syria, the overthrow of Assad would have empowered only jihadists, perhaps even the Islamic State itself.

The Obama administration’s real failure in Syria lies not so much in its failure to intervene, but rather in its irresponsible rhetoric that that implied it was going to intervene. With its calls for Assad’s ouster and declarations of “red lines” the administration turned upside down Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” It misled allies like Turkey, among others, who committed themselves to joining in an effort to overthrow Assad and then watched in disbelief how Obama refused to get involved in a decisive fashion.

Put against the backdrop of Obama’s indecisiveness, Putin’s commitment of combat forces to Syria looked like a stunning stroke of statecraft. Obama and his administration only made themselves look more foolish when they revealed their bewilderment at Russia’s actions. Predictions that the Russian Federation would repeat in Syria the Soviet experience in Afghanistan betrayed an embarrassing ignorance of Russia’s extensive historical experience in the greater Middle East as well a disconcerting lack of self-consciousness about the continuing American effort in Afghanistan, which was already older than the USSR’s ten-year occupation of Afghanistan. John Kerry’s frantic yet fruitless efforts to mediate in Syria further contrasted very poorly to Russia’s ability to broker peace talks

2-  What is a possible strategy that the US Government might follow in order to subvert such trend?

The first thing the United States needs to do is to recognize what its vital interests in the Middle East really are and prioritize what is essential over what is merely desirable. It needs also to heed Roosevelt’s advice.

3 – Do you think that the idea of abandoning the Middle East conceals something more, or something different, than the mere protectionist strategy of isolating the US from the rest of the world?

I don’t agree at all that the United States has abandoned the Middle East, still less that it is isolating itself from the rest of the world.  Obama did not abandon the Middle East, and Trump will not. One might hope that Trump will act with the interests of the American people foremost in mind and pursue wiser policies than his predecessors. That will mean stepping back from the reckless interventionism of his predecessors.

4 – How can the alleged reconciliation with Russia be interpreted in this respect? What is the point for the US of giving up its influential military and political position in the Middle East while bridging its own historical divide from the potential heir, or usurper, of such position?

No reconciliation or rapprochement with Russia has occurred. American policy toward Russia over the course of the past two decades has been replete with setbacks and embarrassments for the United States, such as the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, the Ukrainian crisis, and Syria and Russia’s intervention there. In each of these cases American rhetoric was well beyond its interests, and in each case American policymakers realized this gap when it was already too late. The result has been a worrisome degradation of America’s credibility and standing in the Middle East and beyond. I hope that America’s missteps in the Middle East and Eurasia have not undermined American credibility in East Asia, where there the possibility of devastating conflict is all too real.

5 – Turkey is considered as one of the members of the “troika” (together with Russia and Iran) which brokers the negotiations for peace. Its relations with the US began deteriorating in the last months of President Obama’s Government, mainly due to the Kurdish issue. Do you think that the current Government will take a different stance on that issue, thus attempting a reconciliation with Turkey? If this happens, will there be any consequences on the US behaviour in Syria?

It still remains unclear what the Trump administration will do in the Middle East. On the one hand, Trump has been one of the few major American politicians to concede the obvious fact that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a strategic disaster. It resulted in the expenditure of American blood and treasure and yet left the US in a weakened position in the region and the world, all the while significantly destabilizing the region. The sole beneficiaries of that invasion, it appears, were Iran and jihadis.

Trump’s criticism of the invasion of Iraq suggests that he will be reticent to intervene militarily if America’s vital interests are not at stake. Yet on the other hand, Trump has expressed both a desire to destroy the Islamic State and doubt about the wisdom of the Iranian nuclear deal. His instincts on all three of these issues are solid, but very difficult to reconcile. He will not be able to attain the latter two – destruction of the Islamic and the renegotiation of the Iran deal – without first coming to some sort of accommodation with Russia. I think therefore he would be wise to explore that possibility with Russia, although both Bush and Obama through their missteps have put America in such a weakened position vis-à-vis Russia that Trump may find it impossible to come to a workable arrangement.

As to Turkey, certainly one of the most remarkable developments in the Middle East has been that country’s pursuit of closer ties and even military cooperation with Russia as it feuds with Washington. Among other things, Turco-Russian cooperation puts the integrity of the NATO alliance under real strain. Both the Obama administration’s general passivity in Syria and its willingness to collaborate with the PYD  – an offshoot of the PKK and thus a direct threat to Turkey – did a great deal to alienate Ankara. Developments in Syria are absolutely vital to Turkey. No Turkish government can look on what is taking place there with equanimity. With the US demonstrating itself to be feckless in Syria, Turkey moved to salvage what it could by engaging Russia, which has demonstrated itself to be an influential actor.

The damage to Turkish-American relations has been substantial. To be sure, Ankara has also contributed substantially to the fraying of relations. The Turkish government’s penchant to blame the US for its woes and its refusal to consider how its own policies in Syria and at home in recent years have undermined its security does not bode well for the future. Distrust on both sides is high. The repair of relations between Washington and Ankara will require substantial effort from both. The Trump administration faces a myriad of challenges, not just foreign but domestic, that will demand sustained attention. Whether or not it will recognize Turkey’s importance is one question, and whether it will be able to achieve Turkish cooperation is another. Trump’s priority is destroying the Islamic State, whereas Turkey’s is stopping the PKK and PYD. Many in Washington advocate backing the PYD as a means to counter the Islamic State. One might propose that Turkey cooperate vigorously with the US against the Islamic State in exchange for the US dropping its support for the PYD. That might be one way forward, but with the Turkish armed forces reeling in the wake of the expulsions and detentions of so many officers, it may be that Turkey has relatively little to contribute in the war against the Islamic State.

By Leonardo Fiorespino

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