Obama’s failure to develop a coherent strategy left the field open for Putin

David Ignatius writes: [After the P5+1 successful concluded the Iran nuclear deal] President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry were hopeful about working with the Russians on a “managed transition” away from a weakened President Bashar al-Assad. “I do think the window has opened a crack for us to get a political resolution in Syria, partly because both Russia and Iran, I think, recognize that the trend lines are not good for Assad,” Obama told reporters at the White House on Aug. 5.

Back then, the enthusiasts for greater Russian involvement in the Middle East included many traditional U.S. allies who also seemed eager to play the Russian card. Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman traveled to Moscow; so did United Arab Emirates leader Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir met with Kerry and Lavrov in Qatar. An ominous sign of what was really ahead — a Russian-Iranian alliance to bolster Assad — came with the Moscow visit of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force. But otherwise, this looked until a week ago like a diplomatic love boat.

Obama and his allies failed to anticipate that Russian President Vladimir Putin would come armed to the negotiating table — and prepared to use his weapons to gain military leverage. Putin embodies a kind of muscular diplomacy the United States disdained over the past three years of halfhearted attempts to train and equip the Syrian opposition. Obama’s failure to develop a coherent strategy left the field open for Putin.

The speed and decisiveness of Russian action appear to have taken the administration by surprise, prompting Kerry to voice “grave concerns.” A U.S. official said the intelligence community predicted that Russia would provide indirect support to Assad, such as training and advisers, but that “direct military intervention was not considered the most likely” response.

A source close to Assad’s regime blasted what he claimed was chronic American misunderstanding of Syria. “The scandal is how amazingly incompetent American intelligence is,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Not only were U.S. officials predicting until weeks ago that the Russians could abandon Assad . . . U.S. intelligence could not even pick up on what the Russians were doing, the logistical, technical, military and manpower preparations . . . [to] execute such an unprecedented mission.” [Continue reading…]

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