“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” – President Barack Hussein Obama – August 20, 2012
On July 14, 2015, six world powers – United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France and Germany – reached an agreement with Iran on Iran’s Nuclear Program. When Obama decided to assume personal leadership of the Iran nuclear negotiations, the Iranian economy was straining under a decades old series of economic sanctions. Rather than support Congressional wishes to further tighten sanctions, thereby maintaining pressure on the ruling Mullahs, Obama decided to loosen economic restrictions as a prelude to his negotiations. The Iranian economy began growing again in 2014 and so did Iran’s negotiating power. And so, in 2015, the U.S. signed a deal with Iran that allowed the Iranians to hide much of their nuclear activities, lacked any semblance of enforcement and penalties, ended all economic sanctions, ended embargoes on ballistic missiles – and begins to expire in ten years – on January 2027 Iran can replace and upgrade its centrifuges. Obama himself has admitted that Iran will have full nuclear capability almost immediately after the deal expires. And for this we gave the Iranians access to almost $120 billion – perhaps more – Iran itself says it has already accessed $100 billion. It has been called the worst agreement in diplomatic history.
Ironically, the New York Times summed up the deal in the most succinct terms: “Mr. Kerry described an Iranian capability that had been neutralized; the Iranians described a nuclear capability that had been preserved.”
Pursuit of the Iranian Nuclear Deal has colored almost every facet of our nation’s foreign policy.
Which brings us to Syria. In 2011, during what has been called “The Arab Spring”, revolts brought down both the Egyptian and Tunisian presidents. Protests also erupted in Syria and quickly escalated. In July 2011, the Free Syrian Army was formed by military defectors and Syria began to fall into civil war along religious and sectarian lines.
Assad’s government belongs to the Alawite Muslim sect which is most closely aligned with Shia Muslims (or Shiites) and was supported in the middle east by Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah. The rebels are primarily Sunni Muslims and were backed by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The matter became more convoluted in 2013, when forces of the Islamic State used the civil war as an opportunity to invade Syria – less formal incursions had begun in late 2011. The Islamic State ended up occupying about one-half of Syria – and became known as ISIS. The rebel fighters, meanwhile, saw their ranks swell exponentially with foreign fighters comprised of varying factions with differing ideologies and backgrounds.
In simpler terms, Syria was essentially fighting two wars – the original internal civil war and the newer invasive war – against multiple foes with shifting identities and loyalties.
The United States has long-desired a regime change in Syria, ostensibly due to Assad’s support of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah. Unfortunately, this reasoning would extend to other nations in the middle east as well. America’s soft policy against the Assad regime had more to do with whom Syria was aligned than the actual policies of Syria itself – specifically, Syrian allies Iran, Iraq – and more subtly, Russia.
Russia has long supported the Assad regime and had been assisting Assad politically, financially and with military aid since the beginning of the conflict. On September 30, 2015, Russia officially joined the fight in Syria with a series of airstrikes. According to President Putin, Russia was acting “preventatively, to fight and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories that they already occupy, not wait for them to come to our house”. Note that Russian airstrikes did not target ISIS-held areas but instead concentrated on the coastal areas of the Latakia Province. Note also that the Syrian port of Tartous – sometimes called Tartus – is the location of the only Russian naval base in the Mideast – and is of significant strategic importance to Russia – sparing Russian warships a return to Black Sea bases for repairs and refueling.
Prior to direct Russian intervention it had appeared the Assad regime would collapse. Fast-forward to the present. With assistance from Russian bombers, the rebel-held city of Aleppo has now fallen to pro-Assad forces. For all practical purposes, the rebel forces have lost and pro-Assad forces now control most major cities once again. ISIS remains in the less populated Syrian northeast. What happens with the ISIS-controlled region remains to be seen. Russia may decide to join the fight against ISIS – or they may leave that operation to the United States. In the interim, both Russian and Assad forces will be busy mopping up the remaining rebel-held areas.
Russia now has what it wanted all along – complete control of its naval and air bases in the eastern Mediterranean – which blends into Putin’s earlier strategy in Crimea with its deepwater port of Sevastopol. Russia has recently announced the establishment of a permanent naval base in Tartous – the old one had been leased – along with a massive upgrade and expansion of existing facilities. Russia also stated they are now looking at additional naval bases in the broader area – in particular Egypt.
Now, consider Obama’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran and how that goal left Obama utterly conflicted as it relates to Iran, Russia – and Syria.
There was a time when it appeared all but certain that Assad would fall – a nudge was all that was needed. And yet the United States held back – reluctant to get involved. Why? I direct you back to the list of Assad’s middle east allies – Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah. Iran, as a Shiite-based regime, was deeply concerned over the prospect of Sunni rebels winning the Syrian conflict and establishing a Sunni government in Syria – which would then be aligned with the Sunni government of Saudi Arabia. A Sunni government in Syria would also have made Iran’s ongoing transfer of arms to Hezbollah much more problematic. It was a fear of Sunni Muslims that united the Shiites of Iran and Syria.
And this is why Obama held back in Syria. Obama was so focused on achieving a nuclear deal in Iran – one he felt would allow him to wash his hands of the area for the remainder of his presidential term – that he feared upsetting the Shiite Iranian regime with any support – implicit or explicit – for the Sunni rebel forces of Syria.
Obama has always referred to the Islamic State (ISIS) as ISIL. There are two reasons for this. ISIL stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Levant is a broader geographic area that defines Israel into Islamic State territory – and falls in line with Obama’s dismissive treatment of Israel throughout his presidential terms. The second reason is equally telling. ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. ISIS is not a term the regime of Iran wanted to hear the President utter – as it would lend legitimacy to the rebel forces fighting for Assad’s overthrow.
Obama made his famous 2012 Red Line comment to Assad regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons on its own civilians. Obama threatened retaliation but when Assad proceeded, Obama took no action. Obama held back because Iran had made clear any U.S. move in Syria would collapse the nuclear talks. This inaction created a void in Syria – one that was filled first by ISIS and then more fully by Iran and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And so we return to the beginning.
Syria – all the horrific casualties, deaths and resulting immigration crisis in Europe – along with a highly strategic Mediterranean naval position for Russia – were simply part of the cost for Obama’s Iranian Nuclear deal.
And make no mistake – Russia, and to a lesser extent, Iran, now control Syria.
The cost of the Iranian Nuclear Deal seems very high indeed.
newer post Obama’s Betrayal of Israel
older post Merry Christmas Reclaimed