Michael Weiss has an excellent article in the Daily Beast today, reporting on the ongoing fallout from the Obama Administration’s Syria policy (if one can even call it that). Some choice parts:
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Mustafa Sejry of the [U.S.-trained and backed] Liwa al-Mu’tasim Brigade said that he met personally with a Moscow representative [at] the Syrian-Turkish border 10 days ago and was offered “unlimited amounts of weaponry and close air support” to fight both ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the rebranded al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, in exchange for the Mu’tasim Brigade’s transfer of loyalties from Washington to Moscow.
They have expressed concern that by shifting their loyalty (and dependence) to Moscow, they would be joining the most important ally of their sworn enemy in this triangular war. And the Russians have said, according to Sejry, “We’re not stuck to any kind of agenda. What we want to do is go back to 2012 when there was a government and an opposition.”
“Honestly, I would have never ever even thought about working with the Russians after their horrific atrocities against us and their slaughtering thousands of my own people,” Sejry said. “But this change of mindset I blame on the Americans.”
Of course, this is anecdotal, and perhaps not yet a trend. Weiss rightly keeps the focus in his article on the granular level. He even reaches out to a former U.S. diplomat who was stationed in Moscow during the Cold War, who scoffs that this is straight out of the KGB’s old playbook. “The Soviets were always trying to flip U.S. assets, particularly in the Third World where competition for influence was fierce. Look at Angola during the civil war,” he tells Weiss.
But let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture. What we are seeing unfold before our very eyes is the de facto strategic marginalization of the United States in the Middle East. Allies and foes in the region are watching closely, and all they see is John Kerry being blithely optimistic that the Russians will accept an offer to cooperate to stanch the bleeding in Syria—an offer that is made up largely of one-sided concessions to Russia, and that Russia is very pointedly prevaricating over. Meanwhile, the Kremlin is abusing our diplomats and spies in Moscow and openly meddling in our elections in the United States, all without any sign of pushback from Washington.
The reputational damage is severe and getting worse, if Weiss’s interview is representative of larger trends. It is probably reversible, should a forthright future President wish to spend capital to do so. But the expense will not be trivial at this point. And with the world getting messier by the year, it’s possible that future administrations will find the cost too high.
So is this part of the Barack Obama/Ben Rhodes plot to permanently sideline the U.S. role in the Middle East? Or is it more banal: an example of gross diplomatic malpractice that is managing to gimp what the United States will be able to achieve in the world for the next decade or more? The conspiracy-minded are no doubt ready to credit the first option right away, but the Obama Administration has bumbled and improvised far too much throughout its Syrian misadventure for anyone to put too much faith in the idea that there is some kind of nefarious, coherent plan behind it all.