Peter Brookes: Obama’s Syria policy up against the ropes


Staggered. Dazed. Outmaneuvered.

Those are just a few of the words that quickly come to mind when thinking about the Obama administration’s Syria policy as if it were a boxing match – especially in light of the beating that the city of Aleppo has taken at the hands of Moscow and Damascus.

You’ve seen the pictures.

Though almost inconceivable, the Islamic State’s savagery is being met by – and if such a thing is possible, outdone by – the Syrian government, with its indiscriminate dropping of “barrel bombs” and Russia’s air campaign waged against the strategic city.

Reporting indicates that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, together are responsible for landing a flurry of hooks and uppercuts on civilians, hospitals and an aid convoy in a largely one-sided slugfest over control of Aleppo.

The city was once Syria’s most populous, and its business center.

President Obama’s already-battered and bruised Syria policy, which largely focused on destroying the Islamic State and finding a diplomatic solution to the five-plus-year civil war in Syria, continues to absorb brutal body blows.

While the president’s corner yells for any who will listen that the U.S. policy will actually lead to some sort of positive decision, it’s up against the ropes – and it’s not really clear whether it can avoid a knockout.

That said, there is some possible good news.

Even with so little time left in this administration, it is possible that the “capital” of the Islamic State’s caliphate, the city of Raqqa in Syria, could crumble due to defections, the continuing anti-ISIS air campaign and the efforts of forces backed by the United States (e.g., Syrian Kurdish militias).

(Expectations are that there will also soon be an Iraq-led/U.S.-supported assault on ISIS’s Iraqi “capital” of Mosul.)

While the Islamic State’s concept of a caliphate will be crushed over time, it will bob and weave through its affiliated “provinces” outside Syria and Iraq, its dispersed foot soldiers and its terrorist wannabe followers across the globe.

The fight for greater Syria is another question.

Just about a year ago, Putin moved into Assad’s corner, which was covering up, just hoping to be saved by the bell. With some coaching and support Moscow rescued Damascus from finding itself on its knees on the canvas.

Russia’s move was a match changer, but it may not dictate how the fight ends.

For instance, with serious economic problems at home and continuing troubles in Ukraine, will Russia tire of Syria after Aleppo falls? It’s possible, since taking the city will reduce the threat to Russia’s naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus and its air base at Latakia.

And even if the Islamic State collapses, can Damascus take the fight into the heart of Syria? Assad’s “army” and its allies (militias, Iranians and Hezbollah) are weary, and face a long card of contenders (for example, from al-Qaeda, the Kurds and ISIS).

This is far from over.

For the moment, Team Obama seems to be at least taking an eight count – if not throwing in the towel altogether – on Aleppo. Perhaps, it will manage to slip between the ropes, and come up with a better strategy for Syria before getting back into the ring.

Or it might just sit it out and turn the Syria problem over to the next boxer on the card.

This article first appeared in the Boston Herald.  Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a Fort Valley resident. Follow him on Twitter @Brookes_Peter. Email: BrookesOutdoors@gmail.com.