4, 2008, the newly elected President of the United States Barack Hussein Obama
told the world from Grant Park in Chicago “Yes We Can”. The top international
challenges in 2009, when his presidency began, were Iran, Afghanistan,
Pakistan, North Korea and China. The Arab Spring was still in the future and
the Middle East crises had not expanded to epidemic proportions. A couple of
years into his term the Arab world in general and the Middle East in
particular, became the crisis centre.
One after the other, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Oman, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran exploded in an uncontrolled chain reaction setting all the efforts of the major world powers at nought. The emergence, consolidation and success of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), with participants from over 100 countries is the latest test for the collective wisdom of the Obama administration in its final days.
Obama inherited two pressing US-sponsored post-war reconstruction programmes—one in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan. He came to power with the promise that he would end the US intervention in the two. From the Oval Office, however, the world looked different. He fell in line with the assessment of his intelligence and defence agencies that US military engagement and domination is essential to maintaining supremacy on the world stage.
Obama’s biggest challenge was the Arab Spring beginning in 2010-11 with Tunisia, and then engulfing Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria. The reaction was a conscious and calculated disengagement.
He tried to
revive the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement originally signed in 2008 that
allowed US troops in Iraq. But once the Iraqis refused to extend the scope of
the agreement, Obama announced the full withdrawal of troops before the expiry
of the agreement on December 31, 2011. It was completed on December 16.
But the engagement in Afghanistan continues and the US will stay on even after Obama departs in January 2017. Although its combat role was over in 2014, the remaining 10,000 ground troops can engage in counter insurgency measures.
Obama’s biggest challenge was undoubtedly the Arab Spring beginning in 2010-11 with Tunisia, and then engulfing Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria. The administration’s reaction was a conscious and calculated disengagement. In Tunisia’s struggle against its dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Obama said the US was “not taking sides” but after the dictator’s flight Obama expressed support for the revolution. In Egypt, the US was initially hesitant to criticise Hosni Mubarak for various reasons but allowed him to fall eventually. In Libya, after a successful intervention to oust Muamaar Gaddafi, the US administration became a silent bystander. On Yemen, the US let Saudi Arabia take the lead.
The American pullout from Iraq and its refusal to take sides in the Arab Spring have imposed a cost. Its neutrality left a vacuum, which was filled by a swarm of Islamist extremists, complicating an already fraught situation. The internecine wars sparked by contending parties in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have taken these countries to the verge of chaos and led to a revival, among other things, of al-Qaeda in the region. But it has been quite eclipsed by Isis, the major result of the anti-western blowback.
The US could not decide between conscious disengagement and qualified intervention. At first it followed the theory that foreign powers can do little in the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts or other “ancient hatreds”. But in August 2014 the administration opened military action against Isis. A month later, Obama sent Secretary of State John Kerry, to persuade nine other NATO members to join US strikes against Islamic State. Since then the coalition has got stronger and more have joined the fight against Isis.
The US task is complicated by the fact that the jihadists and terrorists are inextricably linked. If suppressed in one place, they break out in another.
Obama said the US “don’t have a strategy” as late as July 2014, though US
intelligence had started training Free Syrian Army rebels as soon as the civil
war broke out. But in September 2014 he ordered air strikes in company with
five Arab countries, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain and United Arab
In November 2015, Obama ordered the deployment of ground troops as well. The strikes in Iraq and Syria are continuing and thousands of US and coalition forces are stationed in Iraq as military advisors. At the same time, Libya too became a part of the anti-Isis theatre. The void created by Gaddafi’s overthrow was never filled by a stable government so it proved, inevitably, conducive to the growth of extremist forces.
No wonder Obama admitted last month that his government’s “plan for the day after intervening in Libya” was not in place and therefore the Libyan intervention was his worst mistake. The US task is complicated by the fact that the jihadists and terrorists are inextricably linked. If suppressed in one place, they break out in another. So while the US and coalition bombing is showing results in Iraq and Syria, Isis fighters are now relocating to Libya.
hen Obama leaves the Oval Office, the Middle East will remain the greatest and most complex challenge to any successor. It is the centre of death, destruction, despair and a refugee influx that is already rocking the European Union. The United Nations estimates that for 2014, half of the total 51 million refugees and asylum seekers belonged to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The ghosts of the millions killed because of the US war on terror must be wondering why Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize.
It is not just civil war and the consequent displacement of civilians that a post-Obama administration must deal with. Falling oil prices are another major factor. The trajectory of oil prices is directly linked to the wellbeing of most of the Middle Eastern states as they are primarily energy exporting economies. The slump in crude price has affected even the richest, such as Saudi Arabia.
In Obama’s first term prices were high, $110 to $130 a barrel. But since June 2014 the bottom seems to have dropped out of the market as it trades around $40. The period coincides with the rise of Isis in Iraq and Syria. The reasons are many and varied, including insipid economic growth in many countries including China, increased oil production in the US and the decision of Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) not to reduce production. The war in Syria and Iraq has also seen Isis capturing oil wells and selling oil in the black market leading to reduction of demand. All the producers are reeling from the crash.
Oil revenue is the most significant instrument for Arab rulers to keep their restive populations in check. Successive US administrations feel comfortable with autocrats, dictators and family fiefdoms because that means they need to satisfy only one person or family at best to advance their interest in the region. Therefore, the vicious web of high petroleum prices—increased oil revenue, largesse for the people, petrodollar support for Islamic extremists and US domination in the region—is closely linked to US grand plan for the Middle East. The Arab Spring forced Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE to wave many more subsidies at their populations than they used to offer.
For example, on February 22, 2011, the Saudi King offered a 15 per cent increase in state employee incomes, unemployment benefits, housing loans and announced the construction of 5 lakh low-income houses. It takes lots of cash to pacify restless populations with welfare spending. Some analysts including Bank of America think “the era of Saudi’s material overspending is likely behind us”. That’s why the so-called break-even fiscal prices (divide the total fixed costs by the desired level of production) for Gulf states have soared from the $60 a few years ago to about $90 today.
Not all OPEC members are on equal footing and the crude slump has different implications for different countries. Saudi Arabia is comfortable, with a whopping $750 billion in its piggy bank as a reserve fund. So it can withstand the burden of declining oil prices for some time while it tries to price out US shale oil by making it too expensive to extract. There are other motives at work as well.
The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are also on the same ground, with vast reserves that can be used to run deficits for years. But Iraq, Syria, Iran and Nigeria are under great strain because of budgetary demands due to their large population sizes in relation to oil revenues. Iraq and Syria are locked in civil strife while Iran’s oil economy is hostage to Saudi Arabia’s oil policy which is using it as a weapon. By flooding the market it is trying to ensure that Iran, which is about to benefit from the lifting of sanctions by the UN, European Union and US, will remain under the pump.
rapped in the age-old complexities of religion, Iran and Saudi Arabia are the two faces of Islam—the Shia and Sunni. What started as a small schism after the Prophet Muhammad’s death is now for all practical purposes irreconcilable. And since the Safavid Emperor Shah Ismail (1501-22) established control over vast swathes of land in and around modern Iran, the country converted to Shia Islam, marking one of the most important turning points in Muslim history.
Since the Safavid era Iran has been the protector of Shia Islam while Saudi Arabia is the protector and propagator of the Sunni branch. The rift is not just religious but now also political and has often been exploited by foreign powers to advance their national interests.
The two countries are sworn rivals and always ready to support any group or nation that opposes their rival. Sandwiched between a host of Sunni and at times hostile countries, Iran feels insecure both militarily and politically. Saudi Arabia has used its hoard of petrodollars and its position as the home of Islam to take on Iran. This battle of nerves continues today. It was as a hedge against this insecurity that Iran started developing a nuclear programme which attracted collective sanctions from the UN, EU and US on account of its alleged weaponisation objective. It has caused much economic hardship despite the country’s immense reserves of oil (136.3 billion barrels).
The “ancient hatreds” are alive and well. Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse Iran of supporting Shia militants in literally every country in the Middle East. It fears that its Shia militias will become ever more active.
Islamic revolution saw US-Iran relations hit rock bottom and the US announced
sanctions. In 1984 it declared Iran a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” following the
1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Lebanon. The UN also imposed
sanctions on Iran in 2006, increased in intensity after 2010. The objective of
US sanctions was to restrain Iran from supporting terrorism and also to help
its Arabs allies to subdue Iran. UN action related to its nuclear programme.
But sanctions rarely succeed. So there was a growing interest among all stakeholders to end them at the earliest. When Hassan Rouhani won the 2013 election, he initiated a diplomatic effort to have the ban lifted. By this time the US had tasted failure in countries like India, Pakistan and North Korea after their nuclear tests. The US tried every method including diplomatic pressure, ever-tighter sanctions and military action but Iran responded with defiance. In the end the choice was between a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities—something that could have triggered a regional war—and negotiation. Obama chose the latter and finally, four years of secret negotiation in between Iran and US resulted in the Vienna deal in July 2014.
Under the deal, ratified on January 16, 2016, Iran’s nuclear activities will be within the strict agreed limit and under strong oversight for the next decade. But the deal also offers a window for Iran to scale up its production of nuclear fuel. Iran insisted that the crisis was created by vested interests as it never wanted a nuclear bomb.
The agreement is considered one of Obama’s biggest foreign policy achievements. But not everyone is happy. The Arab countries argue that it will not stop Iran from going nuclear, nor persuade the country to cease supporting extremist organisations. The “ancient hatreds” are still alive and well, as the countries opposed to Iran are determined to ensure the deal will not work. The strongest opposition comes from Saudi Arabia and its allies who accuse Iran of supporting Shia militants in literally every country in the Middle East. It fears that since Iran is now under no travel restriction and financial constraint, its Shia militias will become ever more active, notably in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Afghanistan where Saudi Arabia is sponsoring Sunni groups.
The US-Iran deal has produced some strange bedfellows. Washington is covertly working with Iran to bomb Isis. Since its emergence, the US and Iran are on the same page in Iraq but on opposite sides in Syria.
To counter growing US-Iran proximity, Saudi Arabia and Israel joined hands. They met secretly in February 2014, with the first four meetings in the Czech Republic and Italy. The fifth and last meeting was at Lucknow in May 2015, facilitated by the government of India. Raja Mohammad Amir Khan of the erstwhile Oudh kingdom (a Shia scholar from Lucknow with important contacts in the Middle East) and his two sons facilitated the talks.
Although Iran lacks the stature of Saudi Arabia, its Shia theocracy and patronage of Shia militancy is the mirror of Riyadh’s Sunni-Wahhabi facade. But Iran is far better placed to create unrest in the Middle East.
meant to gather opinion against the coming together of the US and Iran. Israel
and the Saudis talked about regime change in Iran, an Arab regional military
force, and a call for an independent Kurdistan made up of territory now
belonging to Iraq, Turkey and Iran. Israel also wanted to lobby against the
deal and to weaken the Islamic League’s belligerent posture against Israel.
Saudi Arabia on the other hand wanted to find out the level of public support
among Shias for Iran and perhaps the reaction among Sunnis if something
untoward happened between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
As for Obama, he considers Iran a destabilising factor in the region, threatening Israel, violating human rights at home, and supporting terrorism abroad. The Shia Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is also deeply suspicious of US intensions.
Although Iran lacks the stature of Saudi Arabia, its Shia theocracy and patronage of Shia militancy is considered the mirror of Riyadh’s Sunni-Wahhabi facade. But Iran is far better placed to create unrest in the Middle East. Its destabilising capacity has already been proved in Syria where it supports the Alawite Shia regime of Bashar al-Assad; in Lebanon, it supports the Shia Hezbollah; in Gaza, it backs the Hamas resistance against Israeli domination; in Yemen, it assists the Houthis against the Arab onslaught and in Iraq, it is building a new Shia militia.
of sanctions means increased revenues of US$1.6 billion a month. There is
growing fear that Iran may use it to match the influence of Saudi Arabia. The
deal has made the Saudis more belligerent on Iran. Riyadh severed relations
with Tehran after demonstrators set fire to the Saudi embassy in the capital in
protest over the execution of a revered Shia preacher in Riyadh. The United
Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Sudan—all Sunni states—also cut ties
with Iran. The Saudi government has encouraged Pakistan, the only Muslim
nuclear state, to announce that Pakistan has a special obligation to Saudi
Arabia in this regard. For the first time, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is being
cited in a Middle East context, against a fellow Islamic country. The permanent
five plus one (P5—US, UK, France, China and Russia) + 1(Germany)) and Iran deal
has greatly altered the power balance in Middle East.
he US experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq convinced the Obama administration not to pledge more ground troops in any other troubled country in the Arab world or the Middle East. Therefore, Obama devised a strategy of getting regional powers to establish order in the troubled region. So he delegated the task of intervention in the Arab world to Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies. Although the US provides strategic guidance and intelligence support, there is no offer of American blood. This job belongs to its Arab allies, primarily to Saudi Arabia.
For decades Saudi Arabia brooded over its hoard of petrodollars, spending vast sums on Wahhabi proselytisation and claiming the status of undisputed patron of Sunni Islam. All that changed abruptly after the Arab Spring broke out and old friends in Islamic countries were replaced by either hostile leaders or rebel groups. Saudi Arabia had no time to think or find a coherent response. To add insult to injury, the US adopted a policy of cautious disengagement in the region. So it was up to the Saudis to maintain the peace and Sunni domination. That put it on collision course with Iran, lurking on every doorstep to augment its Shia presence wherever it could in the Middle East.
The Arab Spring dislodged Yemen’s Abdullah Saleh in 2011 and installed Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi as president. The country descended into chaos and in March 2015 Mansur Hadi was dislodged by the Iran-backed Houthis, an armed Shia political movement and forces loyal to Abdullah Saleh. The US refrained from direct intervention leaving Saudi Arabia with no option but to start an air campaign. The US helped the Saudis to form a coalition of Islamic countries.
The bombing has converted Yemen into a living ruin of human settlement. Some 80 per cent of the population are in need of some form of aid. But the Saudis have not been able to restore Mansur Hadi nor has the US plan to combat terrorism succeeded. Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have profited from the lawlessness and anarchy. Yemen is and will be a challenge because the hatreds aroused by Saudi intervention have not run their course. In Oman, too, Saudi activism continues in the form of cash subsidies for Sultan Qaboos. Oman is another proxy battlefield for Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Syria is the most complex and tragic of all Obama legacies in the region. For Saudi Arabia, promoter of Sunni extremism, it might be a teaching moment as it comes face to face with one of the monsters it created, Isis.
In the Syrian theatre Saudi Arabia is indirectly pitted against Iran and directly against the Sunni Isis. The US is coordinating with the Saudi King to strike against the Isis and supporting anti-Assad forces. Yemen was a strategic reverse for the Saudis while Syria was snatched away by Russia’s autumn intervention that reinforced Bashar al-Assad, Riyadh’s sworn foe. Saudi Arabia under the leadership of the impulsive defence minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent troops to support the rebels. But this plan also failed. The war is edging towards stalemate because of too many competing forces including Russia which openly bombs anti-Assad forces, as well as against Isis.
Syria is the most complex and tragic of all Obama legacies in the region. For Saudi Arabia, promoter of Sunni extremism, it might be a teaching moment as it comes face to face with one of the monsters it created, Isis, with no option but to stay the course and defeat a terrorists group threatening the house of Saud.
The “competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen” leaves no easy diplomatic or military option for Obama’s successors.
fter Tunisia, it was Egypt that embraced the Arab Spring most enthusiastically. It started in January 2011, and within a month, on February 11, the activists were seeing the downfall of the three-decade-old Hosni Mubarak regime.
His departure meant the end of the old regime and allowed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to dissolve Parliament and assume executive power. After a difficult 16-month period of transition general elections were held and on June 23, 2012 Mohamed Morsi, a US-educated engineer and leader of the Muslim Brotherhood took the oath as the first democratically elected president of Egypt. It was the first time in the modern era that the country was being headed by an Islamist and the first that a freely elected civilian had come to power. But regional leaders were nervous about the rise of Islamism.
Egypt’s political system has been subservient to the military since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser. The military became an integral part of the state, whose officers served in government posts, the diplomatic corps, the intelligence and security organizations and the media, which Nasser nationalised. In his seminal work The Last Pharaoh, Aladdin Elaasar described Nasser’s dictatorship, which Mubarak inherited, as a “triple threat”, a dictatorship combining three elements: the personalist, the military and the single-party dictatorship.
The SCAF, which oversaw the messy transition in 2012, had curtailed the president’s power and consolidated its own grip on national security policy. Morsi found himself trapped between the growing aspirations of Egyptians and an uncooperative army. Egypt was polarised between his Islamist supporters and rest of society. Morsi’s first anniversary on June 30, 2013 was greeted with protests by millions of Egyptians which prompted the military headed to dislodge him and suspend the Constitution until an alternative arrangement was made. Morsi was arrested and charged under various sections and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2015.
Meanwhile, interim President Adly Mansour placed a draft constitution for referendum and on January 14-15, 2015 Egyptian voted it with a staggering 98 per cent approval though voter turnout was 38 per cent.
Sections of the Muslim Brotherhood have joined Isis, which has profited from the chaos, to wreak havoc in Egypt.
May 2014, Gen Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had won an election boycotted by the Muslim
Brotherhood to re-establish the military’s grip on government. Soon, faced with
militant attacks and a struggling economy, the general turned to religion to
bolster his authority and justify a crackdown on his rivals.
Since al-Sisi became president the number of death sentences has gone up, which is indicative of the deteriorating state of what little democracy was established after the 2011 uprising. The general has suppressed democratic practices and civil liberties and adopted brutal methods and repression to establish his authority.
A worse outcome is that sections of the Muslim Brotherhood have joined Isis, which has profited from the chaos, to wreak havoc in Egypt. The military is fighting the local Isis unit and on the pretext of fighting terror censoring the press and monitoring radical publications. There is growing concern that Egypt is on the perilous path of polarisation and soon may embrace more violent struggle.
seems to find al-Sisi’s strong man avatar pleasing and Obama is leader-centric
on this score. Washington showed little interest in Cairo after Morsi was
deposed. When the European Union suspended the package of $5 billion allocated
in November 2012, American packages materialised. In August 2015, the US
offered F-16 fighter planes, re-launched the US-Egypt “strategic dialogue” and
promised to resume “Bright Star”, the joint military exercise suspended after
The State Department considers engagement with al-Sisi the best available option. In fact, there is no alternative as al-Sisi is the elected leader and trying to restore peace in the country. The US is a champion of democratic values but seems content to turn a blind eye in the case of Egypt. Obama advocates military assistance to Egypt in four areas—border security, counterterrorism, Sinai security and maritime security.
Egypt has adopted a uniform policy so far as the US is concerned and at no time withheld cooperation. So a new administration will face no rift but the people of Egypt would continue to be repressed and violence remains a very real possibility.
The government has jailed more than 40,000 political opponents, second only to Syria. The country is more vulnerable to violence and insurgency today than ever before. Moreover, Egypt’s ineffective counterterrorism policies are fuelling the insurgency it claims to be fighting. National and international observers agree that the repression in extraordinarily high, perhaps unprecedented in modern history. There is no organised force at present to counter al-Sisi. The US has some influence but it is not making human rights an issue as it has its own interest in mind. Nevertheless, if its approach is not balanced it would be legitimising political repression in Egypt.
intervention in the Middle East was guided by its ambition to convert the
region into a fiefdom and derive maximum profit under the garb of imparting
democracy and welfare. The US understood that the region’s vast oil reserve was
an essential component of its policy to dominate the world.
The Middle East contains 64 per cent of the world’s oil reserves. With it, the US could control the world for a long time to come.
involvement began immediately after the First World War, when the oil majors
Exxon and Mobil became partners of the Iraqi Oil Company. In 1927, Gulf also
started to operate in Kuwait, while Standard Oil of California (SoCal) won the
first concession to explore oil in Saudi Arabia in 1933. SoCal invited Texaco
to join in. They started to export oil from Saudi Arabia in 1938 and
immediately invited Exxon and Mobil to become partners in the newly established
Aramco. After World War II, the US placed a premium on its interests in the
region due to its oil reserves, its strategic location south of the Soviet
Union, the importance of the Suez Canal as a passage to the Far East, and the
strategic location of British military bases in the Suez Canal zone that could
be used to launch a counterattack against the Soviet Union.
The Middle East contains 64 per cent of the world’s oil reserves and the US believed it could not fight a protracted war without that oil. With it, the US could control the world for a long time to come. That is why it preferred to deal with dictators rather than elected leaders. The 9/11 attacks prompted it to charge into Afghanistan in 2001 but it overplayed its hand by going to war with Iraq in 2003. By destroying the Iraqi state it set off reverberations across the region that, ultimately, led to a civil war in Syria. The 2003 invasion created conditions for a movement like Isis.
It is worth noting that the US was supporting elements of Isis in 2012 to take on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. A US Defence Intelligence Agency report of August 12, 2012, identifies al-Qaeda in Iraq (which became Isis) and fellow Salafists as the “major forces driving the insurgency in Syria”—and states that “western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey” were supporting the opposition’s efforts to take control of eastern Syria.
The US, UK, the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey supported the rise of Isis as a way to undermine Bashar. Before the US intervention, Syria was a prototype of pre-2003 Iraq with a high standard of living, and high quality of education, where women and minorities enjoyed equal rights. It became an American target for regime change after the Anglo-American alliance used Sunni jihadist groups to destroy Libya and dethrone Muamaar Gaddafi on the pretext of protecting Libyan civilians. Under cover of the Arab Spring, as declassified documents showed, the US promoted Isis against Bashar.
In 2012, the Obama administration created a “rat line”, a back channel highway into Syria through which weapons and ammunition from Libya could reach the Syrian opposition including affiliates of al-Qaeda via southern Turkey. In the same year a secret agreement was reached between Obama and Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan. The CIA and UK’s MI6 were responsible for channelling funds from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar and arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria. The operation was carried out under the supervision of CIA Director David Petraeus.
It set the stage for a multi-dimensional civil struggle in Syria. On the invitation of the Iraqi government, on June 15, 2014, Obama ordered dozens of US troops in response to offensives by the very Isis it had supported against Bashar a couple of years earlier. In his August 7, 2014, address to the nation, Obama described the Isis advance across Iraq as a persecution of the Yazidis, a religious minority, that necessitated US military action. With the passing of time the ambit of US attacks increased and by February 4, 2015, the US had 4,500 troops in Iraq.
When civil war rocked Syria, Isis Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sent his deputy Muhammad al-Joulani to set up Jabhat al-Nusra in 2011. Soon it proved to be the most capable organisation among the numerous Bashar rivals fighting his army and among themselves. Back in Iraq, Isis exploited the anger of the Sunni minority against the Shia sectarian government in Baghdad. Isis channelled that Sunni discontent and al-Nusra’s strength to launch an ambitious military campaign against the Iraqi army in the Sunni belt. Soon al-Nusra entered the Isis fold to overwhelm Fallujah and Mosul. After the success, Baghdadi declared himself Caliph of the Islamic State.
Obama understood the cost of removing a ruler from experience in Iraq and Libya. The spectre of post-Bashar chaos was real.
Although Obama ordered bombing in Syria he decided not to send troops. Curiously, except for China, the other permanent UN Security Council members are bombing the Isis in Syria but there is no visible victory on the ground. The players involved have different objectives. For example, Saudi Arabia and Turkey wanted to restrict the growth of Isis but are happy with the group’s ability to make a dent in the strategic depth of Shia Iran. Similarly, the US, France and UK who are participating in Iraq and Syria against Isis wanted Bashar to go but the job of removing is delegated to Isis affiliates. Russia on the other hand wanted Isis defeated but Bashar to remain in his position.
After the end of Cold War, this is the first time that the US and Russia are standing face to face in Syria. While the US is firmly against Bashar, Russia has provided every possible support including ground troops since September 2015 to keep him on his throne. In Syria, the US wanted a replay of Libya, Egypt and Yemen but faced failure. The US calculation went awry as Russia and Iran played their cards successfully to keep Bashar intact.
Washington was under pressure from allies like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar to dislodge Bashar. But Obama understood the cost of removing a ruler from experience in Iraq and Libya. The spectre of post-Bashar chaos was real. Therefore, he wanted to build an opposition that would fight both the Syrian army and the jihadists. This plan never worked.
eanwhile, the Iraq-Syria region became a human catastrophe with an uncontrollable refugee crisis, further complicating everything. This has forced the US and its allies to look for a solution and to tone down their anti-Bashar approach. Although Obama wants him gone, he is reconciled to the prospect of seeing the Syrian leader around for the time being.
Moscow has a huge stake in Syria as the coastal city of Tartus is the only Russian naval base outside the former Soviet region. Its strategic depth in West Asia depends entirely on Syria. Therefore, although Moscow persuaded Bashar to destroy his chemical weapons stockpile in 2013, it determinedly opposed his removal.
As the stalemate continued and more than 2,50,000 people were killed in the protracted war, the UN Security Council finally came to an agreement by passing Resolution 2254. Adopted unanimously in December 2015, it calls for a ceasefire, a new government in Damascus within six months, free and fair election and a constitution within 18 months. The timeline is too tight and the challenge on the ground is enormous.
Those who reached the negotiating table are representatives of the Syrian Ba’athist government and the opposition. Kurdish forces, radical Sunni groups and Isis were not party to this negotiation. So the battle is still on in the area controlled by Isis and al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. After a long and meandering beginning, the talks returned on track in March, when the US and Russia agreed to aim for a draft version of a new constitution for Syria by August 2016.
The consensus for now seems to be that there cannot be endless internecine fighting at the cost of civilian lives. There is consensus among all and even among rival powers that every country from the vast spectrum of participants in the Syrian theatre must unite in finding a solution. But that is easier said than done. The next US president will be facing the toughest of tests in Syria where the guns have still not fallen silent and where rival forces possess the capacity to enlist the support of their respective backers at short notice. If that happens again, the next incumbent will have just cause to rue Obama’s intermittent meddling in this volatile region.