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“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster,” warned Nietzsche. “For when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”
Russian tanks rolling into Hama, its airforce bombing Idlib, its missiles flying from the Caspian, its fighters violating Turkish airspace, all of it backed by the familiar language of the “war on terror”, is the abyss staring back at an America that, in search of monsters to destroy, has helped legitimise monstrous deeds. Vladimir Putin can face little resistance bombing ambulances in Idlib when US gunships are incinerating hospitals in Kunduz. Bashar al Assad can get away with murder because, like Netanyahu or Sisi, he has conveniently pronounced his opponents “terrorists”. Syria is Shuja’iyya and Rabaa writ large.
As long as the US carries the dead weight of the “war on terror”, it will have neither the agility to respond to crises nor the moral authority to restrain its wayward—and inadvertent—allies. When Putin volunteered his forces to join a “war on terror” in Syria, Obama had little choice but to assent. Putin, unlike the US, however has targeted mainly anti-Assad forces, some of them “US-backed”. But Washington’s feeble complaints ring hollow when the US has itself set the precedent in targeting anti-ISIS groups. In over a year of bombing Syria, the US hasn’t just targeted ISIS, it has also struck Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham, the Islamic Front at least five times, and even the FSA on three occasions. Meanwhile it has been careful to spare the Assad regime as it wages its own “war on terror” against the Syrian people.
One reason Obama embraced counterterrorism over counterinsurgency is that the latter involves substantial resources, political flexibility, and boots on the ground. Counterterrorism absolves one of such responsibility. One does not have to be attuned to the politics, history or culture of a place to bomb it—as long as one perceives oneself invulnerable to the blowback. Drones, special operations, and local proxies thus became the preferred means of waging war in the Obama administration. The costs were deferred onto the targeted populations. In an infamous policy called “signature strike”, the administration even bombed people, including rescuers and mourners, without knowing their identity, certain that only civilians in the region would be exposed to likely retaliation.
For his two terms in office, this policy ensured that Obama would earn kudos for his successes while the costs of his failures were borne by others. He could project toughness by ordering assassinations from Waziristan to Somalia without ever having to confront an adversary equal in might. If Obama is Kennedy, then his Khrushchev is a teenager in FATA armed with an AK-47 instead of an SS-4 ballistic missile. Obama’s greatest victories have been at the podium: he is a gifted orator. But where his capacity for delivering inspirational homilies is unparalleled, many have sensed invertebracy when it comes to actions. At home and abroad, Obama’s resolve has proved elastic.
Vladimir Putin is made of sterner stuff. But the kudos he has earned for his recent bold moves in Syria is overstated. Putin is no master of the chess board. As his nemesis, the former grandmaster Gary Kasporov notes, Putin is only “good at playing poker with a weak hand against anxious opponents who fold against his every bluff”. Putin’s confidence is merely a function of his opponent’s weakness. Obama betrayed his hand long ago when failed to match hot rhetoric with even modest action. His resolve was tested and was found wanting. Assad brazenly breached his “red line” in August 2013 and, instead of suffering consequences, was rewarded. Confident of American inaction, Assad killed three times as many civilians in the 28 months after the chemical attack as he had in the 28 months prior. Russia and Iran were watching.
The conflict in Syria is often described as a “proxy war” between the US and Russia. Syrian rebels are rarely mentioned without the obligatory prefix “US-backed”. (The regime army on the other isn’t often described as “Russian-backed”.) The backing, though tangible, takes distinctly different forms; and the support that the contending parties have received reflects the character of their patrons. Not used to doing things by half, Russia has supplied the Syrian regime with bombers, gunships, armour, and missiles. The US on the other hand has spent many years trying to ensure that no anti-aircraft weapon would reach Syrian rebels lest it affect its ally Israel’s ability to bomb Syria with impunity (the downing of a Malaysian airliner by pro-Russian militias also underscored dangers). Instead its support has taken the form of non-lethal aid, such as night-vision goggles, satellite phones etc. It took many years before the Saudis were allowed to supply out-dated TOW anti-tank missiles. But so far the US has refrained from passing on any game changing technology.
Part of Obama’s reluctance to act affirmatively in Syria, it is reported, stemmed from his concern that it might undermine delicate negotiations with Iran over a nuclear deal, a deal that he hopes will be his legacy. Obama may have paid a very high price for securing a legacy that is now being humiliatingly unravelled by his own supposed partners. Reuters reports that around the time the nuclear deal was being finalized, the top Iranian commander was in Moscow, lobbying Putin to intervene in Syria to shore up Assad. Several months on, with Russian Sukhois now bombing Hama, thousands of Iranian soldiers have entered Syria to spearhead a regime offensive on beleaguered Aleppo, under Russian aircover. Meanwhile, Obama’s credibility has been further undermined by the Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei has announcing a ban on all further negotiations with the US and president Hassan Rouhani telling CNN that, in a call with Putin, Obama had actually welcomed the Russian intervention.
Russian actions in Syria are an act of aggression against the country’s long-suffering people. Yet, beyond mealy-mouthed statements—and the silent hope that Syria would become Russia’s second Afghanistan—the US has done little to challenge this. Indeed, on several occasions, US officials’ commitment to the “war on terror” ideology has obliged them to welcome Russia as a potential partner against ISIS. Little thought is given to the toll this might extract, given Russia’s looser definition of a “terrorist”, and what an emboldened Putin might do next. “In all times and places”, said Hobbes, “nature abhors a vacuum”. The vacuum Obama left in Syria has been filled by Putin. “Right now,” journalist Nancy Youssef overheard a Pentagon official saying, “we are Putin’s prison bitch.” This is Obama’s legacy. But in the character of his inadvertent ally we can now at least recognise: the war on terror is also a war of terror.