The “worst part” of President Barack Obama’s legacy in the Middle East will be the hundreds of thousands who have died in Syria’s civil war as a result of his disengagement from the region, former Israeli defense and foreign minister Moshe Arens wrote in Haaretz on Tuesday.
Obama’s failure to back up his “red line” following Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s deadly chemical weapons attack on a residential neighborhood in 2013 made it “clear that the power vacuum that existed in Syria was not going to be filled by America,” Arens wrote. Having signaled that the United States would not get involved in Syria, Obama “completely misread the situation, and in response to the Russian bombing campaign warned Moscow that it would be sucked into a ‘quagmire,’ and offered to work with Russia to bring peace to Syria. But at this point Putin did not need Obama. Russia and Iran were going to settle the matter and shore up Assad’s rule in Syria.”
Turkey has also gotten heavily involved in Syria because of this. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “sees America abandoning the Middle East, and does not consider America to be a dependable ally,” Arens wrote. As a result, “he’s putting his bets on what at the moment seems like a winning horse – Russia and Iran in the Middle East.”
Arens attributed the power vacuum in Syria, as well as Obama’s failure to advance negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, to the president’s unwillingness to abandon preconceived notions about the region, and determination to act on his vision regardless of the consequences.
In his mind, “Israeli building activity beyond the 1949 armistice lines including Jerusalem had to cease, and he was going to teach Israel a lesson,” Arens wrote. “U.S. armed forces would have to be withdrawn from Iraq. He was going to stretch out his hand to the Islamic countries and acknowledge that Iran, run by the ayatollahs, should be a dominant power in the area.”
The consequences of these actions meant that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “now found it impossible to conduct negotiations with Israel as long as all Israeli building activity in the territories including Jerusalem had not ceased – a policy no Israeli government was capable of enforcing.” In addition, “with the American withdrawal from Iraq it became the breeding ground for ISIS and Iran began to dominate that country. Strengthened and enriched by the nuclear agreement, Iran is making its weight felt throughout the Middle East. It controls Lebanon and will soon extend its control over Syria.”
Arens’ contention that Obama believed that Iran “should be a dominant power in the area” echoed an analysis made by former Bush White House official Michael Doran, who argued in 2015 that the Obama administration believed that common American-Iranian interests “would provide a foundation for building a concert system of states—a club of stable powers that could work together to contain the worst pathologies of the Middle East and lead the way to a sunnier future.”
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