IN this strangest of all American elections, Republican candidate Donald J. Trump is being played openly by cunning Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has exploited his vanity by showering him with praise and compliments. Trump, impressed by what he saw as Putin’s strength and thuggery, expressed his admiration of the Russian autocrat and went probably beyond Putin’s wildest expectations, hinting that, as president, he will recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and lift sanctions imposed after the annexation and raised doubt about America’s seventy-year-old commitment to defend its NATO allies, and considerably watered down the Republican Party’s platform on Ukraine.
But what is equally astonishing, is that one could say that Putin has been playing President Obama and his insufferably gullible Secretary of State John Kerry for years in Syria, and in the process extracting a horrific bloody price from the Syrian people. Once again, the President of the United States found himself few days ago, expressing his frustration with Russia because it is not cooperating sincerely in maintaining the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) agreement in Syria by not reining in the mass killing of Syrian civilians by its ally the Assad regime.
But the eternally optimistic President Obama is still willing to test, once again President Putin’s sincerity. In a press conference he held at the Pentagon, after meeting with his senior military advisors Obama opined, “Russia may not be able to get there, either because they don’t want to, or because they don’t have sufficient influence over Assad. And, that’s what we’re going to test.” He added; “we go into this without any blinders on. We’re very clear that Russia has been willing to support a murderous regime that has — and an individual, Assad, who has destroyed his country just to cling on to power.” But neither Russia nor the Assad regime were constrained by the CoH since its inception in February 2016. Russia’s fixed wing bombers and Assad’s killer helicopters have been spewing fire, rockets and barrel bombs deliberately on hospitals, schools and bakeries in besieged areas, particularly against the people and defenders of Aleppo.
President Obama said that he has been wrestling with Syria’s civil war for years. “I am pretty confident that a big chunk of my grey hair comes out of my Syria meetings and there is not a meeting that I do not end by saying is there something else that we could be doing that we haven’t thought of?” One would hope that President Obama would admit someday, maybe in a moment of bliss, deep in retirement that his grey hair may have been caused in part by his dithering, dissembling, deliberate obfuscation, lack of resolve and moral courage throughout the difficult years of his dealing with the Syrian tragedy. From the beginning of the peaceful Syrian uprising in 2011, Obama’s insular White House displayed the naiveté and ignorance of his close circle of advisors about things Arab. One of his wordsmiths spoke with confidence that Syrian President Assad will be swept away by the demonstrators the way presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt were overthrown. Hence the refrain; “Assad’s days are numbered”. That assessment betrayed lack of knowledge of Syrian history, society and the nature of the Assad regime.
When the Assad regime deliberately turned the uprising violent, Obama said in August 2011 that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside”. The fact that there was no “or else” attached to the demand made by Obama, was the beginning of a disturbing pattern of behavior by a president who gives words too much credit in the conduct of international affairs, and who is too cautious to the point of immobility.
More than five years after Syria’s famed cities fell to the systematic industrial scale destruction wrought by the Assad regime, Russia and Iran, the world is haplessly watching the agonizing death of the ancient besieged city of Aleppo, site of exquisite monuments that testify to its rich and varied history and the tenacity of its people. The current battle of Aleppo, could determine the outcome of the Syrian war. Obama’s hair maybe greying, but Aleppo is dying. And all the while President Putin has been playing President Obama on the theatre of death in Aleppo dangling in front of his eyes the prospect of a Faustian deal in the form of a convenient and transient military alliance against the extremist Islamist Fath al-Sha’am , formerly known as al-Nusra Front, which unconvincingly said recently that it is no longer affiliated with al-Qaeda. These are the very Islamists that Assad helped create, with indirect help from Obama’s dithering and failure to deliver on his threats against the Assad regime and promises of sustained help to the opposition.
It shall be written, that when death came to Aleppo, few were genuinely moved, unlike a generation ago, when many American and others who were horrified by the slaughter of civilians in Bosnia, shouted “never again” and forced a reluctant American President to do the right thing to stop the carnage. Aleppo is dying but where is the outrage? Where is the outrage in the majority Arab and Muslim states? In Europe, which is being directly impacted by the Syrian tragedy? Where is the outrage in America? Have we become too numbed because of the unbearable stench of death and dying in the Middle East? The Prize
In 2012 the U.S. began secrete negotiations with Iran, in Oman, which eventually led to the nuclear agreement of 2015. In 2013, when the Assad regime was on the ropes militarily, Iran and its Shiite Lebanese proxy Hezbollah intervened militarily and prevented the collapse of the Assad dynasty. President Obama, who was by inclination and temperament opposed to playing an aggressive role in Syria to stop the depredations of Assad and his allies, convinced himself that a strong American role in Syria in support of the opposition could anger Iran and lead to the collapse of the negotiations. From his first inauguration speech in 2009, Obama’s eyes were fixed on the main prize in the Middle East: a breakthrough nuclear agreement with Iran that could lead to a historic opening to a country that has long fascinated Obama.
[Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted “Across the Ocean,” a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem].