“Obama is losing both relevance and influence”

An article notes the problems faced by Obama after Putin’s actions in Syria, “When Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman visited Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Black Sea estate in Sochi this month to talk about Syria, the moment illustrated how much the Middle East’s power dynamics have changed in just a few weeks — and how the Russian president is looking to take the mantle of regional kingmaker away from U.S. President Barack Obama. With Russian warplanes bombing foes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and with the United States unwilling to confront the Damascus regime, Moscow has seized the initiative military and diplomatically. That means high-level delegations from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf powers are knocking on Putin’s door instead of that of the Oval Office”.

The report goes on to argue “The defense minister’s visit sparked speculation that Saudi Arabia — which has armed rebels fighting Assad’s army — was exploring a possible deal that would allow Assad to retain power longer in exchange for the two sides mounting coordinated efforts against the Islamic State. Former diplomats and outside observers, meanwhile, wondered whether Washington had signed off on Riyadh’s outreach to Putin or whether Saudi Arabia had decided to ignore the administration and pursue what it saw as its own best interests. “If the Saudi visit was coordinated with the U.S., that would be one thing, but if it wasn’t, it was the Saudis again saying to us, ‘You’re irrelevant,’” Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, told Foreign Policy. In the wake of Russia’s brazen military intervention in Syria, Obama faces a crucial test of U.S. power and influence in the Middle East”.

Rothkopf rightly surmises that “By deploying a few dozen warplanes and a few thousand troops, Russia has upended the strategic landscape in Syria and has posed an unprecedented challenge to the Obama administration, leading many of its closest allies to conclude that Washington is looking to disengage from the region and is willing to accept that growing Russian and Iranian influence will fill the void. With Moscow taking the initiative on the battlefield, senior officials from the Middle East have been making pilgrimages to Russia to hold talks with Putin, who has managed to convince key powers — including the United States — that a sudden Assad collapse would be potentially catastrophic and would risk allowing the Islamic State to conquer most if not all of the country. Arab nations that have been demanding Assad’s ouster for years say that he will eventually have to go, but are signaling that his immediate ouster is no longer their top priority”.

Most damning of all of the “policy” of Obama he argues correctly that the “shift is part of a broader dynamic in the Middle East, where America’s key allies — already alarmed by the White House’s nuclear deal with Iran — are increasingly concluding that Obama is losing both relevance and influence when it comes to issues like the bloody Syrian civil war or the faltering fight against the Islamic State. The U.S. president is also being challenged on the domestic front, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, distancing herself from Obama by stressing that he overruled her after she suggested arming moderate Syrian rebels several years ago”.

The writer goes on to make the valid point that “Obama, who has long argued against a major U.S. role in the Syrian conflict, has dismissed Russia’s actions as a strategic blunder that will plunge its forces into a quagmire. In a testy recent interview on 60 Minutes, Obama rejected the idea that Russia is overtaking America as the dominant actor in the Middle East. “I got to tell you, if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership,” Obama said. But critics inside and outside the United States say Obama’s approach — which he has described previously as “strategic patience” — carries its own risks. By refusing to directly counter or confront Russia, Washington is seen as steadily ceding vital ground and allowing Putin to insert himself as arguably the most important current power broker in the Middle East. Russia’s aim “is to shore up Assad and to consolidate his position in the western part of the country, and to thereby deal Russia in on any international process for resolving the conflict,” said Stephen Hadley, who served as national security advisor during President George W. Bush’s second term”.

In stinging criticism he adds that “Even some of those who endorsed Obama’s decision not to intervene earlier in the Syrian civil war are now arguing for a firm U.S. reply to Russia’s military actions, particularly over its targeting of American-backed rebels from the air. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor during President Jimmy Carter’s administration, called in an Oct. 4 op-ed in the Financial Times for a stern warning “to convey to Moscow the demand that it cease and desist from military actions that directly affect American assets,” or else face U.S. retaliation. The 87-year-old author and informal advisor to several presidents was even punchier on Twitter, where he said: “Ambiguity can be a cover for strategy, or a signal of its absence. Increasingly, it seems the US is pursuing the latter in the Middle East.” Other former U.S. officials and diplomats, including Clinton, have urged the administration to set up a no-fly zone in northern Syria to counter Russia and to offer a safe area for Syrian civilians fleeing both the regime and Islamic State militants”.

Worryingly for the future of the US order he notes “Although Riyadh said its position on the need for Assad to step down has not changed, analysts and former diplomats who served in the region speculated that the Saudis are exploring the possibility of forging an agreement with Russia — possibly without bothering to coordinate with the United States — that would trade greater longevity for Assad for more intensive Russian efforts against the Islamic State. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir, however, told a news conference in Riyadh on Wednesday that his country remains committed to Assad’s ouster. “There is no change. From the beginning of the crisis, the position of the kingdom is that al-Assad is the problem in the Syria crisis,” the foreign minister said after talks with his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius. In an embarrassment for Washington, which has carried out thousands of bombing raids in support of the Iraqi Army, the Shiite-led government in Baghdad has warmly welcomed Russia’s air war in Syria and joined an intelligence-sharing arrangement with Moscow in September. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has even appealed to Russia to extend its air campaign to Iraq”.

The piece concludes “The White House is betting Russia will stumble in Syria. But if Moscow succeeds, and leverages battlefield gains into a political settlement of the war, then it will “translate into much more regional influence in the Middle East, it will translate into much more Russian bullishness in Asia and Ukraine,” said Vali Nasr, a former senior State Department official in the Obama administration and now dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “And also many other countries in other regions of the world may come to the conclusion that it’s not America that’s the indispensable nation,” he said. The Syrian conflict has been a recurring source of grief for Obama ever since he called on Assad to “step aside” in 2011. In February 2012, an American bid to broker a democratic transition in Syria with a U.N. resolution was vetoed by Russia. Later that year, then-Secretary of State Clinton, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, then-CIA chief David Petraeus, and the military’s then top-ranking officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, all recommended arming Syria’s rebels. Obama rejected the proposal, though he later approved a CIA program that has had disappointing results”.

Such is the position of the administration’s own policy that “The White House has even distanced itself from its own initiatives in Syria. When it acknowledged in September that a Pentagon effort to build a moderate opposition force in Syria had essentially failed, press secretary Josh Earnest suggested that critics who had demanded the program in the first place were to blame — not the president”.

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