Return of the Blob?

A report addresses the return of the “Blob” as Obama prepares to leave office, “Obama’s presidency sent Washington’s foreign-policy hawks, or “the Blob,” as White House aide Ben Rhodes once disparagingly called them, into the wilderness. But the Blob is back, facing its best opportunity in eight years to push for a greater U.S. military role in the Middle East, this time in Syria. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, hold vastly divergent positions on how to bring the five-and-a-half-year war in Syria to an end. As secretary of state, Clinton favoured arming Sunni rebels against President Bashar al-Assad and has proposed installing a no-fly zone or safe zone to protect civilians from Russian and Syrian government bombers. She has also called for providing additional arms and training to Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State. It’s less clear, however, how far she would go in arming opposition groups devoted to toppling Assad”.

The piece adds “Neither Clinton nor most of the others who are calling for a tougher military response in Syria are advocating the kind of full-fledged intervention, with U.S. ground forces, that the United States has undertaken over the past 15 years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Still, her proposals have emboldened those who believe that only American firepower is capable of forcing Assad to pursue a peace deal in good faith. Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who now advises the Syrian opposition, says he believes both Clinton and Trump would pursue a “more aggressive” Syria policy than the Obama administration — though he has no expectations of U.S. forces entering the war to fight Assad”.

He notes “plenty of voices still believe that Obama got it right by withstanding pressure from Washington’s foreign-policy establishment to bomb Assad and increase arms deliveries to a hodgepodge of rebel groups, many of whom have become entangled in alliances with extremists. Some experts say there is even scepticism within Clinton’s tight-knit group of foreign-policy advisors by some who doubt the wisdom of deepening America’s military involvement in Syria. As for a Trump presidency, the GOP nominee has expressed little interest in taking down the Syrian leader, saying in the Oct. 19 presidential debate that “you may very well end up with worse than Assad” if others vie to fill a leadership vacuum his departure would create. Instead, Trump would prefer to work with NATO allies and Russia to defeat the Islamic State: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we got together with Russia and knocked the hell out of ISIS?” he asked at a rally in July. As Obama leaves office next January, foreign-policy wonks will have their best opportunity yet to recalibrate and redirect U.S. policy for Syria. Here’s a mix of hawkish and dovish proposals, as outlined to Foreign Policy, the next president could consider”.

The first involves “no-bomb zones”, “Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, believes Russia’s deployment of advanced missile defense systems would prove more complicated for a Clinton presidency than when she first began pushing the idea of a no-fly zone from inside the Obama administration. But Lister said the United States and Turkey have already effectively created no-bomb zones for Russian and Syrian aircraft in northeastern Syria and northern Aleppo. He suggested deploying international commandos to other areas in Syria to deter airstrikes. Lister also estimated that some 70 armed opposition groups, which he deemed “sufficiently moderate,” have been vetted by the CIA and Defense Department to receive military assistance from the United States”.

It continues with another option which suggests cutting off the rebels with the hope that the war will then end “Some critics of a military solution in Syria see the crisis from an entirely different perspective: They believe the Obama administration did not move fast enough to cut off allied support for the rebels who are linked to extremists — including the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — a dynamic that prolonged the war in Syria. “Escalation has failed to win this proxy war. It has only prolonged it and increased the death toll,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. While no fan of Assad, Landis said the regime’s atrocities do not justify providing military and logistical support to rebels in the dim hope of a political transition that might bring a better outcome. Even so, Landis said there’s still time for the next U.S. president to get the policy right. “The U.S. should help bring the Syrian civil war to a quick end in order to reduce the suffering of the Syrian people,” he said. “The U.S. can assist in this by refusing to send more arms and money to the rebels and to encourage our allies, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, to reduce arms shipments and money flows to insurgents.”

A more aggressive strategy is outlined with decisive military force, “A new U.S. president will need to impose and maintain a credible cease-fire in Syria, said Andrew Tabler, a Syria scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. By most accounts, a U.S.- and Russian-brokered initiative to stop the fighting in eastern Aleppo unraveled in September after Damascus and Moscow restarted a massive bombing campaign. Tabler said Syria paid no price — nor has it ever — for violating the fighting pause. But he said Washington could enforce future cease-fires by launching cruise missile strikes from U.S. warships, or from a neighbouring country, to destroy Syrian airfields and other targets. To avoid escalating tensions with Moscow, the United States would need to limit its targeting to military facilities where the Russians are not present”. In August, Tabler co-wrote a New York Times op-ed with Dennis Ross, a former Middle East envoy who initially supported, but later regretted, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq”.

Importantly it adds “punishing Assad’s regime is easier said than done. Russia has signaled it will use its influence at the U.N. to block attempts by the United States and its allies to further sanction Syria for dropping chlorine-filled toxic bombs on opposition-controlled towns. The new president will have to find a way to overcome Russian opposition”.

The other option is to simply increase the arms to the rebels “The Syrian civil war will either end in defeat for one party or it will come to peace as the result of a negotiated settlement that most likely will be based on the 2012 Geneva communiqué, brokered by the United Nations. Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said he prefers the diplomatic outcome. But getting there will require a military buildup of Syria’s beleaguered rebel forces”.

The last option, and perhaps by far the weakest as it would give Russia and Iran the status and influence they crave is to do a deal “A grand bargain would require buy-in from key regional countries, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and especially Iran and Russia, Bowen said. The deal should also entail “security service reform including demilitarization of militias and the withdrawal of foreign forces,” he said.

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