Things went from bad to worse this week for the Obama administration and its policy towards the continuing crisis in Syria and the broader Middle East. Last week, no sooner than Secretary of State John Kerry announced an agreement of military and intelligence cooperation with Russia to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Nusra Front, NATO member Turkey, from whose Incirlik air base the United States conducts anti-ISIS operations, was riven by a failed coup d’etat that nearly could have sent the country into chaos. This week, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described the current situation in Syria as “the worst-case scenario” for America.
This came just before Donald Trump suggested that as president he would seek to reformulate the relationship between the US and its NATO allies, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and France. In an interview with The New York Times, Trump said the United States should not automatically come to the defense of NATO members if they are attacked unless those countries have paid their fair share to the decades-old alliance. Article 5 of NATO’s charter requires NATO states to come to the aid of a fellow member under assault, thus prompting both Republicans and Democrats to criticize Trump.
Among those who disagreed with Trump were Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, who said, "I disagree with that." Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) told a panel at the Republican National Convention that Trump’s remarks will make it difficult to vote for him this fall. "You have allies right now, I mean I have friends that, you know, serve in parliament in places like Estonia, that every day worry about the Russians deciding that this is the time to re-annex and take them back,” said Kinzinger, a former Air Force pilot. “And comments like this are not only ill-informed, they’re dangerous.”
US v NATO defense spending
The U.S. has always spent more money on defense than any NATO country or any other country, for that matter. According to NATO, the US spent an estimated $650 billion on defense in 2015. That's more than double the amount all the other 27 NATO countries spent combined, even while the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) surpassed that of the US. In addition, the US spends the highest proportion of its GDP on defense: 3.62%. The second biggest NATO spender in proportional terms is Greece, at 2.46%, according to NATO. Greece has a population of 11 million.
Poland joins Britain, Estonia, Greece, and the United States as the only members of the 28-country alliance to meet the threshold.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has warned that total NATO spending will decline by roughly 1.5 percent this year. Of the 28 countries, 18 are increasing their military spending in real terms, the data indicates. Still, alliance members will spend a collective total $892 billion on defense in 2015, down from $942 billion in 2014 and $968 billion in 2013.
Obama's worst-case scenario
Panetta told CBS on July 17 that the worst-case scenario for the region “is that [Bashar al-] Assad continues to remain in power,” and “that the Russians continue to have a presence there.” Additionally, Panetta said that this scenario would mean that Russia would continue to attack moderate Syrian forces and, finally, that ISIS would benefit from the mess. Things became even more complicated when Russian warplanes bombed an Anglo-American forward base that is in support of anti-Assad forces.
The Russian strike on the CIA-linked site where American and British special forces were deployed is part of Russia’s efforts to pressure President Obama to more closely cooperate in the Syrian airspace. Despite the danger to US and British forces and the resulting injury in bilateral relations, the Obama administration sought a compromise with the Russian government. Last week, the US and Russia agreed to conduct airstrikes against the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with the Al Qaeda terrorist network. This came despite objections emanating from the Department of Defense and the CIA. Russia has apparently agreed to stop conducting air raid on rebels that are supported by the US, and also restrain the air campaign in Syria. The US and Russia are negotiating over whether or not Russia would have to ask American approval for airstrikes.
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the White House believe that American airstrikes on the Nusra Front in areas previously occupied by Russian forces would provide protection for allies in Syria. But DoD and CIA officials assert that the White House conceded to the Putin government instead of confronting the Russians head-on.
The Russian air raid on the base happened on June 16. The American and British forces there are said to be maintaining a buffer zone in Jordan. Special forces enter Syria to preserve Jordan -- which is allied with the West -- from the Islamic States. About a day before the airstrike, 20 of 24 British special forces operators left the base. Soon, US air control tracked a Russian jet destined for the base, where it dropped a cluster bomb. US central command air operations center in Qatar then called Russia’s air campaign headquarters in Latakia, Syria, to say that the base should not be attacked. But Russia attacked again anyway about 90 minutes after the call was made to the Russians. Pilots flying the Russian jets did not respond to US air traffic controls on the radio frequencies previously agreed upon by the two sides to avoid clashes. At least four persons were killed in the strikes.
At first, Russia offered the excuse that they believed that the base was controlled by the Islamic State. The US rejected that contention, having noted the unique configuration of the fortification. Russia then claimed that Jordan had given the go-ahead, a claim that the US discredited. The Russians later offered the explanation that the strike was the fault of the US for having supposedly given the wrong coordinates for the base.
American officials explained that DoD had never asked Russia to keep away from the area around the base because it was nowhere near the front lines, and Russian aircraft did not fly in that part of Syria. Tensions remain high between the US and Russia as a result of the strike. Since then, the US. has told Russia to keep away from the Jordanian border.
Writing at the New York Post, analyst Tony Badran of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies wrote that to understand Obama’s stance towards Syria, it is his policy toward Iran and the nuclear deal he struck with the Islamic Republic that must be understood.”Since Syrian dictator Assad is Iran’s strategic ally, Obama long ago decided he wouldn’t back the effort to topple him,” wrote Badran, even though allies in the region urged him to form a buttress against Iran. “But they misread Obama,” he wrote, while saying the European and Middle Eastern allies observed with consternation as Obama favored both Russian and Iranian interests in Syria over theirs.
By 2013, Obama said he regretted his initial thrust to overturn Assad. Obama against surprised allies when he insisted on getting support from Russia -- one of Assad’s two poles of support -- for any initiative. Badran wrote, “The administration brushed off complaints with a constant mantra: The only solution in Syria was political, not military, even as Russia and Iran were pouring in support to Assad precisely to impose a military solution.”
By recognizing what he called Iranian “equities” in Syria, Obama bolstered Iran’s bridge to the Hezbollah terrorist organization in Lebanon. Thus, Obama aligned American interests in Syria with those of Iran and Russia, wrote Badran. Badran wrote that in the resulting partnership with Russia, Obama has shielded Assad against military strikes over his use of chemical weapons against civilians. When Obama claimed that his administration was prioritizing the fight against terrorism (i.e. only ISIS and al Qaeda) but not terrorism sponsored by Iran, and to provide humanitarian assistance to Syrians. The resulting elevation of Russia to the level of partner, writes Badran, has “had catastrophic repercussions.”
Russia's warm-water port
Russia intervened directly in Syria in September of last year in the knowledge that Obama would not object. Russian President Vladimir Putin thus accomplished an age-old strategic objective long sought by Russia: a warm water port. At Latakia, on Syria’s Mediterranean shore, that Putin has established a military base on NATO’s southern flank and thus enables Putin to project power in the Middle East and Europe.
In response, Obama deepened military and intelligence cooperation with Russia in Syria despite objections from the State Department, CIA, and the Pentagon. Badran wrote, “In so doing, the president is entrenching Russia’s presence on the border of NATO, the institution founded to counter Russian expansion. What’s more, since the Russian enterprise in Syria is in full partnership with Iran, its success is Iran’s success. Stated differently, just as Russia now has a base bordering NATO member Turkey, Iran will also cement its presence in Syria — on Israel’s borders.”
In reaching an agreement with Russia, Obama and Kerry have partnered the US with Russia in preserving the Assad regime. Badran said that Obama’s critics are mistaken when they assert that he has been too passive. Instead, he writes that he has been active in “shaping the Syrian theater, both diplomatically and militarily. Only it has done so in a manner that has undercut and endangered US allies and interests. The worst-case scenario is what Obama will leave behind.”