Idea of US as the world's moral force must seem a cruel joke
Published 30/09/2015 | 02:30
Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, has capitalised on American indecision on Syria. With US involvement reduced to training a few beleaguered rebels, sporadic airstrikes, and an apparent policy of ignoring President Bashar al-Assad's continued presence in Damascus, Moscow has seized the day.
Russia has expanded its presence in the coastal Alawite stronghold of Latakia, tightening its continued grip on Tartous (its only sea port in the Middle East).
This week, Mr Putin drove the project further, brokering a deal in which Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran would "share intelligence", ostensibly only on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
The manoeuvre brings Assad in from the cold. It buys him legitimacy, securing his position as the leader of Syria (or what's left of it).
White House officials told the New York Times that US President Barack Obama had been blindsided by the move, and that they did not agree with the inclusion of Assad in an anti-Isil coalition.
But the response was weak. It was a moan, not a roar. There was no real outrage, no cancellation of yesterday's talks with the Russian leader.
This is because, ultimately, the White House gave up on the idea of ousting the Syrian dictator long ago.
Mr Obama's stated position is that there is no solution to the crises in Syria without the removal of the Assad regime.
Speaking at the annual United Nations General Assembly on yesterday, Mr Obama described Assad as a tyrant and as the chief culprit behind the four-year civil war in which at least 200,000 people have died and millions driven from their homes.
But actions speak louder than words, and in this case, America's actions send a very different message.
American war planes now bomb the country from the air, but only areas outside of the regime's control.
They target only Isil or Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qa'ida's Syrian wing. There have even been cases where US-led coalition planes have bombed the jihadists on front lines where they were fighting the regime - effectively, if indirectly, providing air support to Damascus.
Among Washington policymakers, the idea that Assad is still part of the problem in Syria seems to have almost vanished from view.
Three years ago, Syria was the issue of the moment.
Today, the policy caravan has moved on; interest in keeping up to date with developments in Syria has mostly disappeared.
A state-department funded programme documenting potential war crimes by the Syrian regime has been shut down, replaced with a study of Isil's atrocities.
The policy change has filtered into the news reporting. Television and newspaper outlets now focus almost completely on the "Isil threat". Syria is a backdrop to the jihadi demons.
Even the Syrian migrants to Europe, who are fleeing from all parts of the country for dozens of reasons, are deemed to be "escaping from Isil".
On the ground in Syria, little has changed. Isil now controls some areas, but the main story there remains the daily brutalisation of Syrian civilians at the hands of the regime: Assad's air force still drops barrel bombs on towns and villages, his intelligence agents still detain, torture and then disappear anyone who voices opposition to the regime.
Tens of thousands of people still live under government-imposed sieges.
Syrians have watched the Obama administration call for Assad's removal, only to turn a blind eye to the regime's targeted bombing of civilian homes in favour of striking Isil jihadists. The idea of America as the world's moral force must now seem a cruel joke. (© Daily Telegraph London)