Obama policies made a ‘muddle’ of Syria: Analyst

By Esra Kaymak Avci

ANKARA (AA) – As President Barack Obama has only one day left in office, experts say his policies actually led to the conflict in Syria becoming a “muddle” despite his team’s defense that U.S. has accomplished much in two years.

Over a week ago, U.S. Secretary of State Kerry for the last time defended U.S. policies in Syria during a press conference, saying Washington was “on the right path, both diplomatically and militarily,” in fighting Daesh and added that it should “stay on that course”.

However, experts say that the truth is something different.

“Syria is certain to remain a prime example of muddle and incoherence in Obama’s foreign policy,” Pavel Baev from the Washington-based Brookings Institution told Anadolu Agency.

According to another Washington-based political analyst, Hussain Abdul-Hussain, the Middle East had been headed in the right direction “until Obama committed grave mistakes.”

“When Obama let Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad try to forcefully kill a peaceful revolution in Syria, chaos ensued and gave more space for terrorist groups to organize across the Iraqi-Syrian border,” Abdul-Hussain said.

Moreover, Obama’s Mideast policies upset the balances not only in Syria, but also in some other conflict zones like Iraq, which faces many other problems such as terrorist groups getting stronger, according to several critics in Al-Monitor and the Wall Street Journal.

“The offensive on Mosul – inconclusive as it is – cannot compensate for the fact that Daesh came into existence on Obama’s watch, and cannot camouflage the failure in stopping the tragedy in Aleppo,” Brooking’s Baev said.

Daesh emerged from al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004 while the U.S. invasion in the country continued, according to the Wilson Center in Washington.

The group reemerged in 2011 – when Obama was in office – and was renamed the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) in 2013. As the terrorist group actually has nothing to do with Islam, Turkey and others know it as Daesh.

According to the Wilson Center, the U.S.-led coalition began airstrikes against Daesh in Iraq in 2014, and expanded the campaign to Syria shortly after the operations in Iraq.

In the following years, the group took advantage of growing instability in Iraq and Syria to carry out attacks and bolster its ranks, the center says.

Last October, the Iraqi army – backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and local allies on the ground – began a wide-ranging campaign to retake Mosul, which Daesh overran in mid-2014.

However, Mosul is still not fully liberated from Daesh.

Meanwhile, several planned UN-led negotiation talks – supported by the U.S. – in Vienna and Geneva for the conflict in Syria failed, and the U.S. was harshly criticized for not doing enough to make them succeed. Moreover, none of the cease-fires brokered by the U.S. and Russia really held even in parts of Syria.

Additionally, Moscow lately carried out a pounding aerial offensive to assist forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that left much of eastern Aleppo in ruins, and displaced or killed scores of civilians.

Late last month, Syrian opposition forces and the regime reached a cease-fire deal, brokered by Turkey and Russia, to evacuate civilians from eastern Aleppo to safe areas in opposition-held Idlib.

Released shortly after the press briefing, Kerry’s 21-page summary of the Cabinet exit memo which covers U.S. domestic and international policies under the Obama administration argues how successful Washington has been in the fight against Daesh in Syria as well as its efforts for a political solution for Syria.

– Kerry defends Obama’s Syria policy

In his memo, Kerry said progress has been made in the fight against Daesh since Obama announced the formation of the U.S.-led coalition in September 2014.

According to Kerry, thanks to the efforts of the U.S.-led coalition, Daesh no longer controls the 61 percent of the territory it once did in Iraq. The group also lost over 28 percent of its territory in Syria, the report adds.

Despite listing some “accomplishments” of the Obama administration, Kerry does not directly mention the president’s biggest failure, namely the U.S. inaction as it did nothing despite its describing in 2013 Assad’s use of chemical weapons as “crossing the red line.”

Reports of chemical attacks on civilian populations and opposition fighters have continued to come out of Syria since an attack in August 2013 killed more than 1,400 victims in East Ghouta near Damascus.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights said it documented 139 chemical attacks in Syria since September 2013 when the UN Security Council issued Resolution 2118 for the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

Obama changed course and relied on the Russians to provide a diplomatic path, preferring to resort to negotiations instead of changing the Assad regime by force.

However, the diplomatic talks failed in Geneva and Vienna and the U.S. continued to arm some Syrian opposition groups.

Instead of mentioning it, Kerry said Obama’s failure during his presidency was that “other undeclared chemical weapons continue to be used ruthlessly on the Syrian people.”

But he added that the U.S. did its part by working with Russia and the UN to destroy 1,000 tons of Syria’s chemical stockpiles.

– ‘Not sure about better US-Israeli relations under Trump’

Another highlight of Kerry’s final report as secretary of state is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Only weeks before the memo was published, the secretary had already aroused attention with his stern ultimatum to Israel: choose settlements or a two-state solution.

Israel cannot have both, Kerry said in unprecedented comments at the annual Saban Forum hosted by the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“There is no status quo. It is getting worse,” he said. “It is moving in the wrong direction.”

When Anadolu Agency asked Brookings’ Baev about the last-minute change of tone on the issue, he said Kerry was “obviously frustrated with the lack of any fruits from his sincere efforts to find a way out from the deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian relations.”

According to Baev, personal relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been very tense, but it is far from clear whether the “expected better relations” with Trump would signify any progress from the same deadlock.

Kerry’s statement was one of the strongest reactions that a senior U.S. official has ever made, with a tone the secretary likely maintained in the memo.

However, his tone in the memo included frustration that the Israelis and Palestinians never resumed peace talks during his tenure.

“During my time in office, we worked very hard to restart negotiations between the two sides to see if progress was indeed possible,” Kerry wrote.

“Unfortunately, the parties were not willing to make the difficult choices necessary to move forward with the negotiations.”

Although U.S.-Israeli relations are “stronger than ever been,” the U.S. has been calling on the parties to pursue a two-state solution through successful negotiations, according to Kerry.

Israel occupied East Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed the city in 1980, claiming it as the unified capital of the Jewish state in a move never recognized by the international community.

Under international law, all the lands seized in 1967 are considered “occupied territories” and the Israeli settlements are illegal.

U.S.-sponsored peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel collapsed in 2014 over the latter’s refusal to halt settlement-building.

– ‘Relations with Russia will change’

As tensions between Washington and Moscow have been growing, it was highly expected that Kerry would reserve a special chapter in his memo for relations with Russia.

In 2009, Obama had said that he wanted a “clean slate” in relations with Moscow.

According to Kerry, the U.S. and Russia reset relations during the Obama administration and worked together on areas of shared interest such as negotiating the Iran nuclear deal as well as cooperation in other foreign policy areas.

However, he adds, both countries also continued to “have strong disagreements on a range of issues as well.”

“Russia’s unprecedented cyber intrusions and its military intervention in Syria have also posed significant challenges to both our bilateral relationship and to international stability, and it is critical that we remain vigilant against these and other threats, even as we look for areas where it is in our interest to cooperate with Russia,” Kerry said in the report.

Kerry’s aggressive position against Russia is evident when he not only mentions the Russian involvement in Syria and Ukraine, but also cites the cyberattacks that Washington has long pointed to.

According to Baev, U.S.-Russia relations will certainly change under the Trump administration.

He said relations have been changing very fast in the last couple of years and that there is “no reason to expect any stability.”

“Trump has found himself in a very uncomfortable position of trying to arrest the very strong drive in the deterioration of these relations, for which he has no support in Congress,” Baev said. “He might find it far easier to take a lead in this drive – and Russia in fact makes a very convenient enemy for the U.S.”

Russia as well as Iran have been the greatest supporters of the Assad regime, whereas the U.S. has supported the Syrian opposition and wanted Assad to leave.

Russia began its military intervention in Syria in September 2015, reportedly after a formal request for help by the embattled Assad regime against armed opposition groups. Last March, Russia announced a partial reduction of its forces deployed in the war-ravaged country.

Despite several cease-fire deals for Syria which did not exclude the Syrian opposition, Russia continued to hit the U.S.-led coalition-backed fighters in Syria, according to the Pentagon.

In 2014, Ukraine plunged into political chaos after the Russia-backed Viktor Yanukovych was toppled by a popular uprising.

Russia then supplied Ukrainian separatists with heavy weapons and annexed Crimea after a controversial referendum.

Most of the world, including Turkey, does not recognize the illegal annexation.

In reaction, Obama started to impose EU-supported sanctions on Russia.

One of the latest tensions between Washington and Moscow comes from intelligence reports that Russia released hacked materials to sway the outcome of last November’s U.S. presidential election in favor of Trump.

According to Kerry, the U.S. intelligence authorities concluded that “Russia conspired to interfere with the integrity” of the U.S. electoral process.

– Obama vs Trump: Style no less than substance

At odds on almost every foreign and domestic policy issue, the Obama and Trump administrations are expected to show quite a few differences in both the content and method of their policies.

In his memo, Kerry defends the international trade pacts that Trump wants to eliminate.

Despite major differences in the style of foreign policy-making between the Obama and Trump administrations, Baev says that “style often matters no less than substance.”

“In this regard, it is relations with China that might be the most affected. It is also possible that U.S. relations with traditional allies would be more difficult,” Baev said.

The Obama administration is criticized for having moved away from its traditional allies such as Turkey.

On the other hand, Trump’s Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson said last week that the U.S. should start working again with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as Turkey is a traditional NATO ally.

Another difference in the approach of Obama and Trump is over the Iran deal.

The Obama administration spent years working to make the deal happen, whereas Trump, like the majority of Republicans, denounced it a “disaster” and the “worst deal ever negotiated.”

But according to Kerry’s memo, with the deal the U.S. “took a major security threat off the table without firing a single shot”.

Kerry also called on the Trump administration to continue resettling refugees from the Middle East.

“It would be a moral failing of the highest caliber to turn our backs on those in need – including and especially from countries like Syria and Iraq,” Kerry said.

Turkey hosts some 3 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country in the world, and has spent around $25 billion helping and sheltering refugees since the beginning of the Syrian civil war.

Since Trump started his presidential campaign in the summer of 2015, he has been using anti-Islamic rhetoric, calling on a ban from Muslims entering the U.S.

One of the Obama administration’s biggest promises was to shut down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay – a significant step to improve relations with Cuba, which started to normalize during Obama’s presidency.

Under Obama, the number of detainees at the camp has plummeted from 242 men to just over 40.

However, Trump has vowed to refill Guantanamo with “some bad dudes.”

– ‘Trump unlikely to make Iran nuke deal high priority’

On relations with Iran, Kerry wrote that the U.S. “knew that a diplomatic solution was the most durable and verifiable way to ensure” the U.S.’ pledge to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed in 2015 between Iran and world powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear activities in exchange for lifting some economic sanctions.

Kerry said the world powers, including the U.S., spent more than two-and-a-half years to “cut off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon” and signed the deal.

According to Kerry, not only were tougher sanctions established on Iran to end the threat of its nuclear program, but also a limit to Tehran’s centrifuges and stockpiling – necessary to build nuclear bombs – was achieved.

Also “unprecedented transparency measures” allow the U.S. to know almost immediately if Iran fails to comply, giving it plenty of time to act, Kerry said in the report.

Although the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has certified three times that Iran is in compliance with the deal since it was implemented in January 2016, dozens of news outlets have since reported that Iran violated the deal by testing ballistic missiles.

A CNN report even said that Germany’s domestic intelligence service found that Tehran tried last July to acquire technology that could be used for a military nuclear program.

Similar to Kerry’s remarks, Baev said the JCPOA was a “solid” program and signified a “big improvement in Iran’s international positions.”

However, he added that “President Trump is hardly going to make this traditional problem a high priority, and the Iranian leadership has a good opportunity to build on the success achieved in the last couple of years.”

According to Baev, Tehran will certainly be very able to “blow” the opportunity of JCPOA.

“Then we might have another escalation of a very dangerous conflict,” he said.