Monday 20 November 2017

US out of Syrian endgame as Obama takes leave

Departing US President Barack Obama Photo: Marco Garcia/AP Photo
Departing US President Barack Obama Photo: Marco Garcia/AP Photo

Matthew Lee

Stung by years of failure to stop Syria's bloodshed, the United States is now just a bystander to the civil war as President Barack Obama's tenure ends.

Secretary of State John Kerry is still speaking sporadically with Russian, Turkish and Arab foreign ministers about ceasefire efforts, and there are occasional consultations with the opposition.

But less than two weeks before Donald Trump's presidency begins, the Obama administration is no longer even claiming to play the leading part in the peace mediation that it spearheaded unsuccessfully for years.

Leadership has been ceded to Russia and, to a lesser degree, Turkey and Iran.

After helping Syria's military oust the remaining rebels from Aleppo last month, Moscow has cast itself as the would-be peacemaker. It clinched a new truce without Washington's help and announced on Friday that it was starting to draw down its forces in the region.

Russian envoys are also organising the first talks between the Syrian government and opposition in nearly a year. The discussions are set for later this month in Astana, Kazakhstan.

"We still are at the proverbial table," State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Friday. "We may not be at the table in Astana, we may not be at the table in Moscow, I understand that. But it's not like we are walking away from Syria."

With no indication about how the Trump administration intends to proceed on Syria, US diplomats are wary of engaging in any new initiatives that would require a sustained American role. As a result, the Obama administration is ambivalent about attending, even in an observer role, the proposed peace meeting.

The diminution of the US role could have drawbacks. Obama demanded almost six years ago that Syrian President Bashar Assad leave power and allow for a democratic transition. But Obama's reticence to plunge the US into another Middle East war meant the US never had the capability to shape such an outcome. Its increasingly marginal role in recent months means it could have even less capacity to help shape Syria's future and safeguard vital American interests, such as Israel's security and fighting Isil.

On the other hand, Obama hands the baton to Trump without any large-scale military or diplomatic engagement in Syria. Obama's reticence to intervene in the war at least means Trump will have flexibility.

The US is pressing on with the campaign against Isil, and Trump and his national security advisers have said it will be a top priority for them.

The Obama administration has an undisclosed number of special operations troops, presumably about 200 to 250, in Syria.


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