Did the Obama administration work with Russia to prevent Assad’s fall?

    The US approach to Syria has also been considered a failure, or a sign of its waning influence in the region, but testimony from a former Pentagon official changes the narrative somewhat.

    On May 9 2019, former senior Pentagon official Andrew Exum, the Deputy Secretary of Defence for Middle East Policy under the Obama administration, provided candid testimony to the Congressional Committee of Foreign Affairs on America’s strategic orientation vis-a-vis the Middle East.

    While underreported in the news, the significance of his testimony should not be overlooked as it illuminated several interesting points on how long-term American interests in the Middle East interact with tactical policy adjustments.

    It also clarified a number of issues related to American involvement in Syria, most notably, that the Obama administration effectively cooperated with the Kremlin in order to avoid the total collapse of the Assad regime in Syria.

    American-Russian coordination in Syria

    The US approach in Syria has been variously labelled as a ‘failure’ a ‘strategic blunder’ and a sign of the continued erosion of American influence in the region. One particularly salient narrative has been that the US lost the strategic initiative to Russia in 2015, and was subsequently prevented from taking any decisive action.

    The prevalent notion that the Obama administration lost the initiative in Syria due to its indecisiveness, both as it relates to armed support for the opposition and direct military intervention, seems questionable in light of Exum’s testimony.

    By 2015, Exum’s office had begun coordinating for a scenario in Syria that they deemed a ‘catastrophic success’. According to Exum’s testimony: “We worried that the Assad regime might finally collapse – and do so quickly, in a way that would endanger US interests, to include the security of the state of Israel.”

    This fear, led to the establishment of a direct channel of negotiations with the Russians in Syria, in what amounts to coordination between the two powers based on what was quickly becoming a shared area of concern, namely, avoiding the collapse of the Assad regime. According to Exum: “For much of 2016, the US government engaged in a lengthy series of negotiations with the Russian military and intelligence services over the fate of Syria, and for better or for worse… I was the Pentagon’s primary representative at these talks.”

    To what end?

    All of this raises the critical question of why the Americans would seemingly coordinate with Russia to prevent the outright collapse of the Assad regime? One way to explain this is within the paradigm of ‘dual containment’. Whereas the US contributed to the weakening of the regime in the first years of the war, a tipping point was eventually reached – the previously referred to ‘catastrophic success’ – that entailed a shift towards ensuring the survival of a weakened Assad regime.

    As I have previously argued, the Assad regime in Syria, in both its Hafez and Bashar iterations, has represented a strategic known quantity, particularly for Israel. Thus, it is perfectly reasonable that both the US and the Israelis would want to keep it alive, albeit in a weakened state.

    All of this reflects a number of important points. Firstly, it clearly shows that the US approach to Syria can hardly be categorised as being reflective of a strategic ambiguity resulting from the waning of American power and influence in the region.

    In this understanding, states that fall outside the American sphere become useful if they are made to be relatively fragile and weak, thereby becoming more conducive to serving both American and Israeli interests in the region, a fact eluded to in Exum’s testimony.

    Today, American leaders continue to sell the notion that the US remains a ‘force for good’ in the region. Given the increasingly vitriolic rhetoric of the Trump administration, particularly as it continues to build its case for war with Iran, this has been increasingly called into question both by traditional American allies and from within the centres of power in the US itself.

    However, as if there were any more evidence required, American actions in Syria make it abundantly clear that ‘upholding the good’, however that may be variously understood, ultimately does not, and has never informed the strategic lens with which the US looks at the Middle East.

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