THE TURNING point was the Syrian chemical weapons crisis in August 2013. US President Barack Obama wanted to deter Syria’s Bashar Assad from further use of chemical weapons against his opponents and had drawn a red line a year earlier – any Syrian chemical attacks, he warned, would draw a powerful US military response.Therefore, a major crisis erupted when in late August 2013 Assad crossed that line.Obama faced a dilemma. If he didn’t respond, American credibility would be seriously undermined and Assad would be able to continue his chemical weapons attacks unhindered; but if he used force to punish Assad, this would mean direct US military intervention in the Syrian civil war. Obama was in the process of terminating the long and unsuccessful US military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and had no desire to begin a new one in Syria. He threatened retaliation, but he transferred the decision to strike to Congress for its approval.
Sensing Obama’s indecision, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed a deal: The US would not attack Assad in return for a complete dismantling of all Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles and production facilities.Obama acquiesced.The lessons were clear: Obama was reluctant to make good on his commitments, whereas Putin was ready to take the initiative, resolving the crisis and ensuring Assad’s political survival. From the beginning of the civil war in Syria, the US had insisted on Assad’s departure as a precondition for resolution. Now this policy was shattered. Putin emerged from the crisis strong and assertive, while Obama was seen as a waverer, trapping himself with red lines and then failing to act when they were crossed.The next crisis developed from the rapid and overwhelming conquests of significant areas in Syria and Iraq by Islamic State (ISIS) forces. Initially, Obama didn’t think ISIS constituted a strategic threat to American interests. Only after the radical Islamist organization cruelly beheaded American journalists and threatened Baghdad did he change his mind, but admitted to having no strategy to deal with the crisis.After weeks of deliberations and vague statements, he ruled out any “boots on the ground,” but authorized a few lesser steps: an air campaign with allies, military assistance to groups fighting ISIS, such as the Kurds, and sending advisers to train the crumbling Iraqi military forces. His response was too little, too late.At the same time, Iran was fighting ISIS both in Syria and Iraq, and Obama thought that once the nuclear deal with Tehran was finalized, a coordinated effort with such a significant regional player could advance the battle against ISIS.The nuclear deal concluded in July 2015 legitimized Iran’s global standing. Obama hoped to go on to collaborate with Tehran in several areas other than the fight against ISIS: ending the war in Syria, stabilizing Iraq and restraining Iranian proxies like Hezbollah. The lifting of UN sanctions which followed the deal, however, led to other unanticipated and less favorable consequences.Most significantly, it paved the way for a major arms deal between Iran and Russia, for much closer strategic ties between the two countries, and direct Russian military intervention in Syria.The Russians intervened in Syria primarily to save Assad. Putin authorized the use of air power to help the Syrian army, Hezbollah and Iran move on the ground. Russia built air force bases on the northeastern Syrian shore of the Mediterranean.The Kremlin insisted that the military intervention was designed to liquidate the “terrorist organizations” fighting Assad. To garner legitimacy from the international community, Russian leaders claimed the strikes targeted ISIS. But many were conducted against Sunni rebel groups, including several, which the US had supported.The intensive and brutal Russian attacks on civilians helped the Assad military and its allies change the balance of power, score victories and regain territory. The siege of Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, spawned a new wave of refugees and evoked threats of intervention from Turkey and Saudi Arabia.The US response was hesitant and timid.Obama again failed to develop a coherent strategy to deal with the radically changing circumstances in Syria. He called for resolution of the conflict by peaceful means and Russia agreed. After killing about 500,000 of his own people and making millions refugees, Assad was seen by Washington as a central part of the problem, and the Americans again demanded his removal. Russia, however, insisted that he is part of the solution and resolved to keep him in power.In mid-February in Munich, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reached a partial cease-fire agreement. As in the 2013 negotiations to resolve the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, Russia dominated the talks and refused to stop the air strikes.The rebels, both moderate and extreme, felt betrayed by the US. So the Obama administration urged Russia to halt its attacks on Aleppo immediately. Calling the US bluff, Russia’s Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev rejected the demand, insisting that the situation was close to a new Cold War and warning that any entry of “foreign troops” to Syria would lead to a “world war.”Putin demonstrated aggressive leadership, formulated clear goals, developed a strategy to achieve them and took steps to protect his allies. By contrast, Obama demonstrated weak leadership, didn’t have clear goals, didn’t develop an effective strategy and US allies felt betrayed by his policies.Obama called for Assad’s removal, but throughout the uprising had failed to tender the moderate rebels sufficient support.Once ISIS started advancing, it wasn’t clear whether the US preferred Assad to stay over a possible jihadist takeover of Syria.Obama’s policy of disengaging from the Middle East left a vacuum quickly filled by Putin. Russia fully exploited the opportunity not only to shore up its only base in the region in Syria, but also to create a strategic alliance with Iran and new openings toward other key players like Egypt, to which it is supplying arms and a nuclear powered electricity plant.US officials believe the Russian intervention will fail and Syria will become the quagmire that Afghanistan was to the USSR in the 1980s. They also maintain that beyond the common interest in Syria, Russia and Iran have significant differences over the future of the Middle East and that their alliance will be short-lived.Both these assumptions are questionable.Russia is pursuing major arms deals with Iran, and wants to convert its military presence in Syria into a permanent base for political and diplomatic influence across the region. Obama considers defeat of ISIS a top priority and collaboration with Russia and Iran as necessary to achieve this goal.The Russian-Iranian alliance, however, is far more dangerous for the future of the Middle East than ISIS. The contiguous Iranian strategic axis, which includes Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, coupled with regional hegemonic aspirations, billions of dollars released from frozen accounts, modern Russian conventional weapons and nuclear weapon options, poses the greatest threat to regional stability and world peace.The blunt truth is that the US has conceded the Middle East to Russia and Iran, and outsourced its regional responsibilities and commitments to Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Obama’s failed leadership has weakened US standing in the region.One of the chief victims of this policy is Israel. Israel’s power depends to a large extent on the projection of US power. When the US is weak, Israel is also weakened. If Russia and Iran dictate Syria’s fate, Assad would become even more of a puppet than he already is. Hezbollah might obtain new, sophisticated Russian weapons, and Iran and Hezbollah would revive plans to build a base for attacks on Israel.Following the Russian air strikes, Israel had to build a coordination mechanism with the Russian military to protect vital Israeli interests and to avoid unwanted confrontations in the air. Preventing the transfer of sophisticated weaponry from Assad to Hezbollah became more difficult.Given Obama’s disengagement from the Middle East, closer collaboration with Russia could possibly have improved Israel’s strategic position. This option, however, doesn’t exist. Israel depends almost entirely on American military, political, diplomatic and economic support. There is no alternative to the US-Israeli relationship.From Israel’s point of view, one can only hope that Obama’s successor will reassert American leadership in the region and better handle its complex threats and crises. Prof. Eytan Gilboa is Director of Bar-Ilan’s center for International Communication and a Senior Research Associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies.