The strategic roots of the U.S. ‘defeat’ of Sept. 10, 2013

Special to

Gregory R. Copley, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

There should be no ambiguity: the U.S. and the West suffered a transformative strategic reversal on Sept. 10, 2013, and Russia and Iran each separately made substantial strategic gains and consolidation as a consequence.

But the pivotal decision of Sept. 10 by President Barack Obama to delay military strikes against Syria almost certainly forestalled what could have become an even more consequential move toward a strategic disaster for the U.S. and West. The strikes would have also brought about a problematic outcome — almost certainly conflict, chaos, and national boundary changes for some states — for Turkey, Iran, Russia, and other Eurasian/Mashriq states.

American hostages were held for 444 days after the seizure on Nov. 4, 1979, of the United States Embassy complex in the Iranian capital of Teheran.
American hostages were held for 444 days after the seizure on Nov. 4, 1979, of the United States Embassy complex in the Iranian capital of Teheran.

The seeds of the predictable path toward this situation began with the U.S. decision in early 2011 — by the Barack Obama White House — to work with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, to insert radical jihadist forces into Syria to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad and to remove Syria as an ally of Iran.

But, in fact, the framework for the Sept. 10 reversal began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, when U.S. President George H.W. Bush refused to embrace post-Soviet Russia as a new component of the West. This was compounded by the actions of each successive U.S. Presidency.

This failure by the West was married to the parallel stream of U.S. failure — this time begun by U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1978-79 — to support the Shah of Iran, and then, by precipitating the Shah’s downfall, to allow Iran fall into a profoundly anti-Western path.

U.S. President Obama has not yet comprehended the fact that the defeat which he was forced to accept on Sept. 10 saved him — and his allies — from an even worse situation. There are indications that he might still attempt to use military force against Syria.

That, however, would return the situation to a path of substantially broader conflict, uncertainty, and economic damage. But the events of Sept. 10, 2013, provided the opportunity for a pause for the U.S. and its allies to reconsider their strategic trajectory.

A military move by the U.S. and its allies against Assad would not be, as some alarmists have suggested, the trigger for “World War III”, but it would be a trigger for ongoing unrest which would further erode the global economy.

To begin to put this into perspective: In the immediate political framework, Obama’s decision on Sept. 10, to postpone U.S. military strikes against Syrian government targets may have saved his political reputation and influence from further erosion, but it also proved to be a significant turning point in the politics of the Mashriq, Turkey, and the Persian Gulf.

Saving Obama’s immediate political credibility, both within the U.S. and internationally, was a gift which Russian President Vladimir Putin gave him by affording Washington the opportunity — and excuse — not to undertake the planned military strike against Syrian government targets. Russia brokered an agreement with President Assad for the Syrian military to surrender its chemical weapons to be controlled and destroyed by the international community. It was a gift which Obama was forced to accept with some embarrassment and, presumably, anger, because the benefactor, Russia (and its quasi-ally, Iran) understood that it was “better to give than receive”.

Putin gave Obama what Obama said he wanted: the removal of Syrian government chemical weapons. But giving Obama what he said he wanted took away from Obama what, in fact, he really wanted: the removal of Assad and the pro-Iranian Syrian Government.

The primary impact of the unavoidable decision by Obama to “postpone” remotely-delivered military strikes against Syrian government targets could well spell the terminal failure of the foreign-backed (and foreign-inserted) combat forces to remove Assad. In other words, the intense efforts by Obama, the Emir of Qatar, the Turkish Government of Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Government of Saudi Arabia since early 2011 to remove the Assad Ba’athist Government of Syria may well have now ended in failure.

The planned U.S. military intervention was supposed to have come at “the eleventh hour” to save the foreign-backed rebel groups — which are heavily comprised of non-Syrian fighters — from the grinding success which the Syrian government and loyalist forces have increasingly had.

The conflict is far from over, but the outcome of Assad remaining in office represents, to some extent, a defeat for U.S. strategic policy (as it now stands) in that Iran would retain access to the Mediterranean. and dominate the northern tier. This is antithetical to Western interests, and, to a degree, to the interests of Israel, but not nearly as damaging as the destruction of a cohesive, multi-ethnic/multi-confessional Syria which would result from the emplacement of a radical jihadist Sunni administration — or series of administrations — in an unstable, war-torn region.

But more significant, and positive from the U.S. view of its interests in the region, the prospect of a coming end to the war in Syria could well be that Iran would withdraw its de facto state of war against Turkey. This could well mean the survival of the Turkish state rather than the prospect of a fractured Turkish state resulting from the planned Iranian-led indirect war of retaliation for Turkey’s rôle in attempting to destroy Iran’s vital strategic ally, the Ba’athist (read: ‘Alawite/neo-Shi’a) Syrian government.

In other words, Obama’s “defeat” in his attempt to lead and successfully conclude the U.S.-Saudi-Qatar-Turkish war against Assad (read Iran) may well have saved Erdogan and the Turkish state. Had Obama proceeded with the military strikes against the Assad government, he would almost certainly have expanded and protracted the Syrian conflict and the human turmoil and suffering in the region. He would also have certainly precipitated the Iranian war against Turkey.

Obama may still conduct military strikes against Assad government assets, without first consulting the U.S. Congress or gaining a genuine international consensus. The gesture from Putin — and agreed by Assad — to surrender Syrian military stockpiles of chemical weapons to international supervision and destruction allowed Obama to resile from his strident public commitment to a military strike, a move which was facing increasing Congressional and public opposition.

While Putin’s — and Assad’s — deal on Syrian military chemical weapons gave Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry what they said they wanted, it did not given them what, in fact, they really wanted. The White House said it wanted to eliminate Syrian military chemical weapons, and it achieved this objective. The real White House objective, however, was “regime change”: the removal of the ‘Alawite-led Ba’athist Government of Syria and its replacement by a Sunni administration.

It is significant to inject, at this point, the fact that the chemical weapons inventory under Syrian government control has been a millstone around Assad’s neck: he had no wish to use them, and it was politically unacceptable to do so, in any event. Having the weapons taken off his hands would free a significant number of disciplined Syrian military personnel for more effective work.

The removal of Syrian chemical weapons (although not the removal of Hizbullah chemical weapons) also diminishes the threat to Israel.

Significantly, the three major regional players (Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia) had different perspectives as to what this “Sunni administration” should be. Each wanted its own Sunni force to dominate, and this was unlikely to lead to a successful or harmonious outcome, although any of the Sunni options being proposed by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia would have continued to exacerbate the outflow of minority populations from this “Fertile Crescent of Minorities”, including the Syrian Kurds, the Druze, Christian, and Jewish communities, among others.

[See: “Victory in Syria: But For Whom?”, by Yossef Bodansky, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, May 30, 2013.]

Meanwhile, although the Iranian clerical leadership is unhappy with the U.S. attempts to remove Assad in Syria, and with the U.S. persistence in imposing the economic embargo against Iran, there is a growing belief in Tehran that it is only the Obama White House which is suppressing Israel from launching a preemptive military strike against Iran. This remains the clerics’ overriding strategic concern, given that the probability of a U.S. military strike against Iran is now negligible.

There appears to be a belief among Iran’s leading officials that Iran is close to its goal of creating a fully indigenous nuclear weapons capability and that it could then persuade the region (and the international community) to accept its nuclear status as an unalterable fact, provided it could achieve this goal before Israel launches a military strike. Thus, the restraining capability of the White House on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen as significant.

Indeed, Iran’s growing strength in the region – significantly, despite the embargo – means that the Iranian clerics can not only threaten Turkey, they can also threaten Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf emirates. The Saudi and Qatari concerns over Iran, then, not only seem justified, but Iran’s hostility toward them has likely been heightened by the supposedly clandestine war they have waged against Iranian ally Syria.

Significantly, Saudi Arabia’s need for security protection may cause its leadership to attempt to strengthen its relationship with Washington in ways which put the Syrian adventure in the past. And Iran’s growing confidence could enable it to build on its tentative, discreet contacts with Washington as well, to keep Israel from posing a strategic threat.

The game is far from over.