Obama's dilemma on Syria
The fall of Ramadi to Islamic State (IS) troops last Wednesday was not a big deal. The city was deep inside IS-held territory, IS fighters had controlled 80 per cent of it since March, and we already knew that the Iraqi army can't fight. Even so, Islamic State is not going to take much more of Iraq. What it doesn't already hold is either Shia or just not Arab at all (Kurdistan), and that is not fertile ground for Sunni Arab fanatics.
The fall of Palmyra last Friday was a very big deal, because it was clear evidence that the Syrian army's morale is starting to crumble. It was doing quite well until last summer and even regaining ground from the insurgents, but the tide has now turned. After every defeat and retreat, it gives up more easily at the next stop. It may be too late already, but at best the Syrian regime is now in the Last Chance Saloon.
The Syrian army is very tired and short of manpower after four years of war, but what is really making the difference is that the insurgents are now united in two powerful groups rather than being split into dozens of bickering fragments. Unfortunately, both of those groups are Islamist fanatics.
Islamic State and the Nusra Front are both takfiri groups who believe that Muslims who do not follow their own extreme version of Sunni Islam are apostates, not real Muslims, and that they deserve to be killed. Around one-third of Syria's population are apostates by this definition - Alawites, other Shias, and Druze - and they are all at great risk.
An Islamist victory in Syria could entail the deaths of millions. It would also cause panic in the neighbouring Arab countries, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Yet no nearby Arab country will put troops into Syria to stop the looming disaster, because they cannot imagine fighting fellow Sunnis in Syria, however extreme their doctrine, in order to save the Shia regime of Bashar al Assad.
You don't get the choices you would like to have. You only get the choices that are on the table, even if you are the president of the world's only superpower. At this point, Barack Obama has only two options: save the Syrian regime, or let it go under and live with the consequences.
It's not even clear that he can save it. He cannot and should not put American troops on the ground in Syria, but he could provide military and economic aid to the Syrian regime - and, more important, put US airpower at the service of the Syrian army.
Even that might not save Assad's regime, but it would certainly help the morale of the army and the two-thirds of the population that still live under his rule. With more and better weapons and US air support, the Syrian army might be able to catch its breath and regain its balance. It would be a gamble, and if Obama did that, he would be alienating two major allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But if he doesn't do it, very bad things may follow.
US planes are already bombing Islamic State (and the Nusra Front too, in practice) all over northern Syria, but they did not bomb the IS troops attacking Palmyra. That was a deliberate decision, not an oversight, even though Palmyra would probably not have fallen if Obama had given the order.
The US president didn't do that because he is still stuck in the fantasy land of an American-trained 'third force' that will defeat both IS and the Assad regime in a couple of years' time. Saving the Syrian regime is a deeply unattractive choice, because it is a brutally repressive dictatorship. Its only redeeming virtues are that it is not genocidal, and does not threaten all of its neighbours.
Obama may have as little as a couple of months to come to terms with reality and make a decision. Waiting until the Syrian regime is already falling to intervene is not a good option; decision time is now. His reluctance to decide is entirely understandable, but rescuing Assad is the least bad option.
- Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.