Mr Obama dithers and changes his mind too often on foreign policy. He now watches as Russia moves in to fill the vacuum where the USA once was the dominant influence on Syria and Middle East policy. The present situation is full of both danger and opportunity.
Russia’s relationship with the Obama regime was badly damaged by the annexation of Crimea. The West condemned Russia for an illegal occupation. Russia condemned the USA and EU for helping destabilise a Ukrainian President who just about held the country together only to see him replaced by a new President who could not get on with the Russian speaking peoples in his own country. The West imposed sanctions on Russia, and turned its attention to the deteriorating situation in Iraq and Syria. Russia sought to build its long standing diplomatic and economic links with the Syrian regime of Assad and with Iran as a prelude to possible intervention of its own. Russia offered sufficient help to the rebels in the east of what remained of the Ukraine to keep the Ukrainian civil war going. Both the rebels and the Ukrainian government used military means to extend their dispute, killing civilians caught in the crossfire.
President Obama came to power implying he would withdraw from Afghanistan and seek diplomatic rather than military solutions to Middle Eastern problems. He was talked into augmenting the military presence in Afghanistan and fighting for longer before withdrawal. He promised to end detention at Guantanamo Bay for suspected terrorists and others who were not put on trial, but was talked into holding people for longer who subsequently were not accused of any offence in a court. He was contemplating removing Assad from Syria by force, but did not do so. More recently he says he wishes to defeat ISIL, but will not use ground troops to do so. It is no wonder Russia sees weakness and uncertainty in these changes and attitudes.
Russia now sees an opportunity for a win/win. Russia would probably on suitable terms settle Crimea and join a joint action against ISIL, as long as Assad’s regime was not the target as well. If the West will not accept Russian terms for collaboration, Russia thinks she will get away with military intervention in Syria to weaken both ISIL and other enemies of Assad, strengthening Russia’s position as an ally of Syria and Iran with an important place in the region. I understand Russia’s strategy( I do not of course support it), but struggle to understand the USA’s reply. The USA says she welcomes help with tackling ISIL though it needs to be co-ordinated, but condemns attacks on some other forces fighting against Assad. What is the USA going to do about it if Russia does bomb non ISIL opponents of Assad? Will the USA help Russia identify who they do want to kill?
Having both the USA and Russia intervening with bombs in a highly unstable country with no clear agreed political strategy is dangerous. Involving Russia and Iran in a solution to Syria’s problems might be helpful, if it were done by talking. It is high time there was an attempt to get serious talks underway between the interested parties on the future of Syria. At some point war war has to give way to jaw jaw. Does Syria have a future as a unitary state? What happens after Assad? How will the expectations of the Kurds be handled? Can Sunni and Shia find a way of power sharing in a unified state? There are many questions to tackle. Bombs will not provide an answer to most of them.