"How should we judge a country's foreign policy?" Stephen Walt asked in an article earlier this week. "How do we decide whether it is smart, foolish, shrewd, lucky, successful, or disastrous?"
Answering these questions is less straightforward than it might seem. Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard university, continued:
"We cannot judge foreign policy performance solely looking by whether specific goals were achieved or not. Good fortune sometimes rescues poor judgment or inept implementation; at other moments, a well-intentioned and well-planned initiative goes badly. Even the wisest and most far-sighted leaders sometimes fail, and fools sometimes get lucky.
"We also have to take the 'degree of difficulty' into account. Leaders facing grave challenges may work very hard, pay a big price and accomplish relatively little, but we might still judge them to have performed well in difficult circumstances."
"Difficult circumstances" is certainly phrase that policymakers could apply to Syria. Among the two chief foreign protagonists, the Obama administration has often been accused of dithering and indecisiveness. Russia, on the other hand, may appear obstinate and obstructive but has also enjoyed some diplomatic success in the wake of the chemical weapons crisis.
The United States is now little more than a bystander in the Syrian conflict. Despite all the military might at its disposal and the political influence that it wields in many parts of the world, it has found itself relatively powerless when it comes to shaping events in this war-torn country.
In an article for Politico last week, Michael Weiss wrote:
"It’s hard to pinpoint just when, exactly, Barack Obama’s Syria policy fell apart. Was it in December, when Islamists humiliated US-backed rebels by seizing what limited supplies America had given them? Was it back in September, when Obama telegraphed his reluctance to enforce his own 'red line' after the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on its own people? Was it in the months beforehand, when the administration quietly and mysteriously failed to make good on its pledge to directly arm the rebels? Or did it collapse in August 2011, when Obama called on Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to go, only to do almost nothing to make it happen?"
The scale of the Syrian tragedy is truly appalling. Since the conflict began an estimated 130,000 people have died and around 40% of the population have been driven from their homes. It's true, in a sense, that Obama has allowed this to happen but he cannot really be held responsible.
When the conflict broke out, as far as US policy was concerned, there were no good options. It was a matter of choosing the least undesirable course, and that is still the situation today. For all the criticisms of Obama's policy on Syria, no one has yet come up with an alternative that would have been indisputably (or even very probably) better.
To some extent, Obama is being blamed for not behaving towards Syria as George Bush behaved towards Iraq – and we all know where that led. There are still too many Americans who find it difficult to accept that the power of the United States has limitations and who view every problem, no matter where it occurs, as one that the US has an obligation to try and solve – even at the risk of making things worse.
While it's inevitable and also healthy that Obama's Syria policy should be dissected and debated in the media, Russia's policy – unfortunately – has not faced a similar degree of public scrutiny.
Syria is the last Arab country where Russia still has significant influence – a throwback to the Soviet era. Russia also has economic interests in Syria through arms sales and investments, and a small naval facility at Tartus on the Mediterranean coast. The latter is the only one outside the former Soviet bloc and its importance is probably more symbolic than military.
Besides that, Russia has its own concerns about jihadists, especially in the Caucasus (Dagestan, Chechnya, etc), and the possible knock-on effects from conflict in Syria.
But the main impetus behind Russia's Syria policy is a desire to frustrate western efforts, largely as a result of Nato's earlier intervention against the Gadafy regime in Libya. At that level its policy might be considered a success, at least in the short term, because nothing can happen at the UN regarding Syria without Russia's assent.
As the conflict drags on, though, Russia's policy is looking increasingly problematic. It was based on the assumption that Assad would succeed in clinging to power. He has done so after a fashion but still seems incapable of defeating the rebels.
Although Russia continues to advocate a political solution, on the ground the main effect of its obduracy has been to prolong the conflict, thus increasing the cost of Russian support for the Assad regime and intensifying rather than reducing the jihadist problem. In terms of achieving Russia's goals, this has been counterproductive.
More widely, this has also damaged perceptions of Russia in the Middle East. Mikko Patokallio and Juha Saarinen write:
"By being seen as a defender of autocrats and as a cynical great power, Russia has clearly cast itself on the wrong side of the Arab Spring. Support for Assad and Gaddafi guarantees that new governments in their respective countries will not look to Moscow for assistance. Russia’s unyielding stance on Syria also damages relations with those Arab states that have urged Assad to leave, especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia."
Most of the difficulties that Russia now faces could have been avoided had it not tied itself so closely to Assad's presidency. This has severely limited its room for manoeuvre and hampered efforts towards the political solution that Russia says it wants.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 8 January 2014