When Obama Talks, Putin Acts: Russia's Escalation A Recipe For Disaster
15 November 2015
By Eyad Abu Shakra
Like many, I listened the other day to Barack Obama talking about the Russian
military intervention in Syria. In his talk the American president criticized
Vladimir Putin's refusal to distinguish between the Islamic State of Iraq and
Syria (ISIS) and Syria's moderate opposition, regarding the Russian
president's escalation a ''recipe for disaster''.
Truly interesting was the way Obama was speaking, and his cold analytical
expose which was more like a lecture in a post-graduate seminar at Harvard
than a speech made by the leader of a ''superpower'', who is supposed to have
a proper strategy in one of the world most dangerous hotspots.
Obama sounded like an academic analyst who is quite good at diagnosis but
astoundingly disinterested in suggesting a treatment; and faced with Russian
military presence in an acute and multi-faceted crisis like the Syrian
crisis, he looked as if he was not preparing any practical reaction.
Obama's lengthy and pointless expose reminded me of an anecdote I had heard
from my late grandfather (May God bless his soul) about an incident that took
place in pre-independence Lebanon. Then, there was an intense presidential
election campaign between the two foremost Maronite Christian leaders:
''Sheikh'' Bechara El-Khoury of the Constitutional Bloc, and Emile Edde of
the National Bloc; both of whom served as president at different times.
In those good old days, unlike today, Lebanon actually had a president and
presidential elections. Politicians and chieftains of those bygone days used
to cooperate, socialize and respect one another.
The late prime minister Riad Al-Solh, one of Lebanon's most capable,
charismatic and wittiest leaders, took charge of the campaign of ''Sheikh''
Bechara, his ally and friend; and when he realized that the outcome could be
decided by one or two votes in the Parliament, he mobilized his team and
tried to secure any potentially winnable vote.
Soon enough Al-Solh was told that Elias T. Skaf, popular leader and MP of
Zahle (Lebanon largest Christian town) was still uncommitted, so he
dispatched to him one of his assistants who was both a fellow MP and a
personal friend of Skaf.
The emissary, whose name was Amine, immediately left for Zahle to meet with
Skaf; and after a sojourn of a few hours returned to Beirut to report back to
Solh. At Solh's house all the Constitutional Bloc's campaign machine was
anxiously waiting, led by the host who rushed to meet and ask him about the
''Yes, I met Elias Bey'' Amine replied. ''I told him how great and patriotic
'Sheikh' Bechara is, and how much we need him as president. I added that he
is also a reliable friend and a magnanimous leader, who knows no fear in
defense of what he believes to be right''.
Solh interjected ''Bless you, Amine Bey, and then what?''
Amine returned to his ''Obamaesque'' narrative and continued: ''I told him
too that 'Sheikh' Bechara also enjoys great respect in the Arab countries and
with the great international powers; in addition to his vast popularity
within Lebanon, its every region and religious community.'' Again Solh had to
stop him, by thanking him and gently prodding him to come up with the much
hoped for reply.
Unperturbed, Amine went on: ''I then told Elias Bey that 'Sheikh' Bechara is
loyal and never forgets those who stand with him. And he is also a man of
experience, as well as a legal authority …''
Highly frustrated, Solh could take no more, so he cut him short by saying:
''My dear Amine Bey all this is fine, but what I really want to know is what
Elias Bey said.'' To this the emissary replied: ''Well, he said that he had
already given a pledge to Edde that he would support him, and he won't break
With a bitter smile Solh looked at those present and said ''Well, that's it
then. Let's go and congratulate Emile Edde!''
This is exactly what is happening to Syria now between Obama's eloquent
speeches and impressive analysis for more than four years; and Putin's
actions including, Security Council's vetoes, arms supplies to Bashar Al-Assad's
regime, a nuclear alliance with Iran, and now an active involvement of the
Russian air force in supporting Assad's regime and Iran's militias against
Syria's moderate opposition.
Even Michael Fallon, the British defense secretary, said in an interview that
''initial Ministry of Defense intelligence suggested only one in 20 Russian
airstrikes (in Syria) so far were targeting ISIS''.
He added ''We're analyzing where the strikes are going every morning…the vast
majority are not against ISIS at all'', and talked of civilian casualties.
Furthermore, Moscow has said openly it is liaising with the ''legitimate''
regime's army, and exchanging operational data with it. This comes, of
course, after Putin's saying that ''there is no difference between ISIS and
any armed Syrian opposition groups''.
In the past few days, as president Obama was busy diagnosing, lecturing and
analyzing, official sources in Moscow were talking about a four-month
campaign in Syria!
Sure there are those who continue to insist that Washington indeed has a
strategy but is still waiting for the right time to announce and implement
it. I have also heard that Washington is actually intentionally pushing
Moscow into a quagmire in the Middle East which will be a ''second
Afghanistan'' this time round for Putin.
Both points may be true, simply because the current ''know nothing, do
nothing'' policy is too ludicrous to believe.
If an example is ever needed, go no further than what Gen. Lloyd J. Austin
III, commander of US Central Command, told the US Senate armed services
committee that the USD 500 million effort to train Syrian forces against ISIS
has resulted in only ''four or five'' fighters actively battling the
Not far behind, in terms of ''incredulity,'' is president Obama's
''discovery'' that had it not been for Iranian and Russian support, Assad
would have been toppled.
After more than four years and a half of bloodshed in Syria, it is sad that
Obama feels he has to say this, more so, after just agreeing a nuclear deal
As for the alleged ''quagmire'' Washington has in store for Putin in the
shape of a ''second Afghanistan'', let us only recall what the ''first
Afghanistan'' produced for America and the world!
Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been
with the newspaper since 1978.