In the final days of US President Barack Obama’s second term, it is time to sum up his foreign policy. Obama has done his damnedest to keep America out of foreign wars and he succeeded. The question is at what price? Syria will go down as his most deplorable and bloodiest failures. Historians will debate whether Obama’s ‘leading from behind’ approach contributed to the ongoing bloodbath that has dragged on into its sixth year. Aleppo will be remembered as one of the worst international atrocities since World War II. Obama has simply abandoned this hapless city to barbaric Russian and Syrian air strikes, at times with chemical weapons.
Earlier on, his own Secretary of State John Kerry was once flabbergasted by Obama refusing to keep his word about reacting to President Assad’s repeated use of chemical weapons. (Obama had vowed there would be ‘consequences’ but then sought a Molotov-Ribbentrop deal with Putin. Come to think of it, Obama adopted the same submissive approach to the nuclear deal with Iran).
After his latest umpteen meeting with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, the impotent Kerry said, with a straight face, that the two super-powers are now studying ‘new ideas’ to stop the carnage in Aleppo. For his part, Lavrov replied:
‘The time is ripe for compromise.’
Maybe Lavrov has a point – if Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided that he has got what he wants in Syria. At present, the Russian and Syria juggernaut has left Aleppo and most of rebel-held Syria in a heap of rubble. The death toll in the five-and-a-half-year civil war is an estimated 500,000 dead, millions of wounded, and millions of refugees fleeing for their lives. The Syrian rebels, who tried to topple the barbaric President Bashar Assad, have been left high and dry. This after Obama backed the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, a fanatical Islamist movement that topples President Hosni Mubarak and tried to set up an Iran-like Islamist regime in Cairo. After being pummeled by a combined force of Russian and Syrian aircraft combined with Iranian and Hezbollah ground forces and what’s left of Assad’s decimated Army, the rebels are on the ropes.
Obama has reversed the pendulum of his predecessor George W. Bush and extricated the U.S. from its bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His policy of ‘leading from behind’ also steered America through the Arab Spring. From the American perspective, public opinion supported him, the U.S. had paid enough in blood and treasure and there would be no more ‘boots on the ground’. This was the message that Obama openly articulated when he addressed U.S. paratroopers when he pledged to send them into harm’s way only if America’s vital interests were at stake. He has kept his word. America’s commander in chief has emerged as a Buddhist monk in his conduct of foreign policy. This is one perspective of what has transpired over the past eight years – maybe this has been in America’s interest. But the problem is that the other super-power, Vladimir Putin is a serious student of Joseph Stalin!
Enter Donald Trump – nobody has the foggiest idea about what he will do after he enters the Oval Office. The ‘philosopher king’ will be succeeded by a Machiavellian leader, who will, curiously enough, also put ‘America First’! The question is how will this be translated into his Middle East policy and the burning issue of Israeli settlements for example. His nominee for defense secretary, Gen. (ret.) James ‘mad dog’ Mattis, takes a dim view of Israel’s settlement policy on the West Bank:
‘If I’m in Jerusalem and I put 500 Jewish settlers out here to the east and there’s 10,000 Arab settlers in here, if we draw the border to include them, either Israel ceases to be a Jewish state and you say the Arabs don’t get the vote and that’s – apartheid’.
Now visiting the U.S. – Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, has addressed this very issue, calling for Israel to seek an understanding with the new Trump administration on settlement building. Such a new understanding would prevent any ‘surprises’ between the two allies. Lieberman is calling for a coordination of Middle East policy between Jerusalem and Washington that former Israeli governments succeeded in forging with Washington. Lieberman was addressing the Saban Forum.
‘I think it’s clear to us that the key to the future of the settlements is through understandings with the U.S. It is not only what we want – we are not in a vacuum. I have made my position clear in the cabinet’.
Therefore Lieberman proposed the Israeli government postpone a decision on what to do about the disputed settlement of Amona until after Trump takes office on January 21st. There is only one problem, Israel’s Supreme Court has ordered parts of Amona that are built on private Palestinian land must be evacuated by Dec. 25th.
Apropos President Elect Donald Trump: his surprise telephone conversation with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen that has so angered China is a case Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu should note. Namely, don’t take anything for granted when it comes to the new U.S. leader.
On the Syria front, Israeli aircraft carried out another pre-emptive strike, apparently on sophisticated weapons in Syria being shipped to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. There were no casualties, which destroyed a truck convoy and an arms warehouse near Damascus. The air-to-ground missiles were apparently launched from Lebanese air space. This is the first time in weeks that Israel has conducted such an attack. Israel’s standing policy is that it will interdict ‘game-changing׳ weapons that Iran dispatches to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. It also appears the agreement between Netanyahu and Putin to prevent a clash between Russian and Israeli aircraft is working. It looks as if Israel has both the intelligence and air capability to detect and destroy the arms shipments by launching air-to-ground missiles from over Lebanon and thereby avoiding an accidental clash between Israeli and Russian jets over Syria.
Israel is continuing to carry out its zero tolerance policy to any cross border attacks from Syrian territory on the Golan Heights. In the most recent case, a Hezbollah pick-up truck fitted with a heavy machine gun opened fire at an IDF position inside Israel and then sped off. There were no Israeli casualties and IDF troops returned fire. Within minutes an IDF aircraft spotted the escaping truck and destroyed it with a missile killing its four occupants.
But now that it looks as if President Assad will remain in power and the rebels will lose the civil war, Israeli defense planners will have to start preparing for a new situation on its northern frontier. Assad’s Syrian Army will be licking its wounds for years to come but it’s hard to predict what role Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards will play after the civil war is over.