From ABC (Australia) "The World Today" transcript, 27 February 2014:
ELEANOR HALL: To Syria and overnight the Assad government claimed victory in an ambush in the eastern outskirts of the capital, Damascus.
The state news agency says government forces killed more than 170 Islamist fighters.
But an Israeli-based analyst with the Washington Institute, Ehud Yaari, says Assad will not win this three year long civil war.
He says Israel is quietly increasing its role in the conflict and that the Netanyahu government has now decided that Assad must go.
Ehud Yaari is in Sydney today as a guest of the Australia Israel Jewish Affairs Council and when he joined me in the World Today studio this morning I asked him about the significance of the latest fighting in Damascus.
EHUD YAARI: I'll be very blunt, there is no way president Assad can win this war. He is maintaining power and some control over about 35, 40 per cent of the country but there is no way he can win because his army is overstretched, exhausted.[...] The airlift from Russia and Iran cannot compensate for it.
If it was not hundreds and hundreds of Iranian military advisors and 6,000 fighters from Hezbollah, he would lose the main artery, the main highway of Syria, which is the M5, and control of the M5 is basically the crucial issue in this civil war.
ELEANOR HALL: That's a big if though, isn't it? I mean the support from Iran is significant and it's not likely to diminish.
EHUD YAARI: No, it's very significant support. If it was not for the Iranians and their proxy Hezbollah, he would not be in power today however the Syrian army or what remains of the Syrian army, which is less than a third of what it used to be, is unable to mount any significant counter offensive.
What they are able to do is have such an ambush somewhere around Damascus, bomb neighbourhoods, cities, townlets but they cannot take territory because they don't have enough forces.
ELEANOR HALL: And yet this very destructive war drags on. Now officially Israel has kept its distance from this conflict and we've actually had an Israeli military analyst on this program saying that in purely strategic terms it suits Israel to have the various Islamist groups fighting on Syrian soil rather than eyeing Israel but you suggest this is changing. Why?
EHUD YAARI: Yes, I think I differ with my countryman in his assessment. I'll put it again bluntly if I may, we'd prefer the devil we don't know in Syria, even if it is the Islamists, to the devil we know, because the devil we know, Assad, was going for nuclear weapons. He is the one who provided Hezbollah with all the missiles that they've firing against Israel.
The second point is that Israel is very interested to prevent the flow of the two factions, the two rival factions of al Qaeda, from north Syria down to the south and Hezbollah Israel is mounting an assistance program, a very considerable one so that Al Qaeda will not become our next door neighbour.
ELEANOR HALL: So how big a role then is Israel currently playing and how has that shifted in recent months?
EHUD YAARI: Well, you know that Israel has so far treated 700 wounded rebels in Israeli hospitals. At Golan Heights we are providing heaters, blankets, fuel, medication, food to the villagers and townlets east of our frontier and you would not be wrong to assume that there is a very good system of communications and coordination between Israel and the people on the other side.
Now to what extent Israel is aiding rebels in the south beyond civilian humanitarian aid, that's something that has not been publicised so far.
ELEANOR HALL: What's your speculation about that?
EHUD YAARI: My speculation is that Israel will do whatever it takes to prevent al Qaeda from entrenching itself close to our border.
ELEANOR HALL: Where do you see Israel's role expanding either officially or unofficially?
EHUD YAARI: Well, although we don't want Israel to get involved in the civil war, we are holding a huge magnifying glass over Syria and we are waiting for president Obama to make up his mind whether he is going to support the good rebels, let's call them, the non-Islamists, otherwise this bloody war in Syria is just one huge pond of blood will continue probably for years.
ELEANOR HALL: But the role of the US is that critical?
EHUD YAARI: It is critical because everybody in the region, the Arabs, Israel quietly, they are all saying to Obama here in Syria you cannot lead from behind. So they're saying to Obama we will all follow but you have to take the lead. He's taking his time.
ELEANOR HALL: Now Israel is not part of the Geneva process working to find a negotiated solution in the Syrian conflict...
EHUD YAARI: A mistake by the Israeli government not to insist that we attend the meetings. We are an immediate neighbour of Syria. I think the Israeli government has committed a major mistake by not insisting on being there.
ELEANOR HALL: Do you think that the Israeli government will now insist on being involved?
EHUD YAARI: Well, this is what I am [privately] telling the prime minister but he doesn't always listen to me.
ELEANOR HALL: And if Israel were to become more involved in the conflict both in the negotiations with other nations in that forum and also potentially militarily, what difference can Israel make?
EHUD YAARI: I think the decision of the civil war will take place from the south. A good push by the rebels, properly supported, would carry the day.
ELEANOR HALL: You say that the devil you don't know is the one that you'd prefer but what are the risks in trusting the rebels?
EHUD YAARI: Major risks. We have in Syria something around 50,000 fighters belonging to the two rival factions of al Qaeda so we are looking at the real danger that al Qaeda will be able to take at least parts of Syria.
We in Israel and our friends in Jordan are not interested in seeing al Qaeda entrenching themselves close to our borders [...]so you should expect that both Jordon, King Abdullah and Israel, Mr Netanyahu are taking every possible measure to prevent al Qaeda from flowing down south.
ELEANOR HALL: Does every possible measure though for prime minister Netanyahu include potentially keeping Assad there?
EHUD YAARI: No, that's not an option. I think the decision in Israel has been taken quietly. We are not making, the Israeli government doesn't make statements about the civil war in Syria but the Israeli position, the strategic logic of the Israeli position is that we would like to see Assad out...
ELEANOR HALL: And that's Israeli-based analyst with the Washington Institute Ehud Yaari.
And you can listen to the extended interview with him on our website ... where he talks more broadly about the region, including Egypt and the resignation en masse of the interim government there this week.
Never mind the Fed's taper, it's the U.S. geopolitical taper that is stirring world anxiety. From Ukraine to Syria to the Pacific, a hands-off foreign policy invites more trouble.
... it is not only U.S. monetary policy that is being tapered. Even more significant is the "geopolitical taper." By this I mean the fundamental shift we are witnessing in the national-security strategy of the U.S.—and like the Fed's tapering, this one also means big repercussions for the world. To see the geopolitical taper at work, consider President Obama's comment Wednesday on the horrific killings of protesters in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. The president said: "There will be consequences if people step over the line."No one took that warning seriously—Ukrainian government snipers kept on killing people in Independence Square regardless. The world remembers the red line that Mr. Obama once drew over the use of chemical weapons in Syria . . . and then ignored once the line had been crossed. The compromise deal reached on Friday in Ukraine calling for early elections and a coalition government may or may not spell the end of the crisis. In any case, the negotiations were conducted without concern for Mr. Obama.
The origins of America's geopolitical taper as a strategy can be traced to the confused foreign-policy decisions of the president's first term. The easy part to understand was that Mr. Obama wanted out of Iraq and to leave behind the minimum of U.S. commitments. Less easy to understand was his policy in Afghanistan. After an internal administration struggle, the result in 2009 was a classic bureaucratic compromise: There was a "surge" of additional troops, accompanied by a commitment to begin withdrawing before the last of these troops had even arrived.
Having passively watched when the Iranian people rose up against their theocratic rulers beginning in 2009, the president was caught off balance by the misnamed "Arab Spring." The vague blandishments of his Cairo speech that year offered no hint of how he would respond when crowds thronged Tahrir Square in 2011 calling for the ouster of a longtime U.S. ally, the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Mr. Obama backed the government led by Mohammed Morsi, after the Muslim Brotherhood won the 2012 elections. Then the president backed the military coup against Mr. Morsi last year. On Libya, Mr. Obama took a back seat in an international effort to oust Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, but was apparently not in the vehicle at all when the American mission at Benghazi came under fatal attack in 2012.
Syria has been one of the great fiascos of post-World War II American foreign policy. When President Obama might have intervened effectively, he hesitated. When he did intervene, it was ineffectual. The Free Syrian Army of rebels fighting against the regime of Bashar Assad has not been given sufficient assistance to hold together, much less to defeat the forces loyal to Assad. The president's non-threat to launch airstrikes—if Congress agreed—handed the initiative to Russia. Last year's Russian-brokered agreement to get Assad to hand over his chemical weapons is being honored only in the breach, as Secretary of State John Kerry admitted last week.
The result of this U.S. inaction is a disaster. At a minimum, 130,000 Syrian civilians have been killed and nine million driven from their homes by forces loyal to the tyrant. At least 11,000 people have been tortured to death. Hundreds of thousands are besieged, their supplies of food and medicine cut off, as bombs and shells rain down.
Worse, the Syrian civil war has escalated into a sectarian proxy war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, with jihadist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the Nusra Front fighting against Assad, while the Shiite Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Force fight for him. Meanwhile, a flood of refugees from Syria and the free movement of militants is helping to destabilize neighboring states like Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. The situation in Iraq is especially dire. Violence is escalating, especially in Anbar province. According to Iraq Body Count, a British-based nongovernmental organization, 9,475 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2013, compared with 10,130 in 2008.
The scale of the strategic U.S. failure is best seen in the statistics for total fatalities in the region the Bush administration called the "Greater Middle East"—essentially the swath of mainly Muslim countries stretching from Morocco to Pakistan. In 2013, according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, more than 75,000 people died as a result of armed conflict in this region or as a result of terrorism originating there, the highest number since the IISS Armed Conflict database began in 1998. Back then, the Greater Middle East accounted for 38% of conflict-related deaths in the world; last year it was 78%.
Mr. Obama's supporters like nothing better than to portray him as the peacemaker to George W. Bush's warmonger. But it is now almost certain that more people have died violent deaths in the Greater Middle East during this presidency than during the last one.
In a January interview with the New Yorker magazine, the president said something truly stunning. "I don't really even need George Kennan right now," he asserted, referring to the late American diplomat and historian whose insights informed the foreign policy of presidents from Franklin Roosevelt on. Yet what Mr. Obama went on to say about his self-assembled strategy for the Middle East makes it clear that a George Kennan is exactly what he needs: someone with the regional expertise and experience to craft a credible strategy for the U.S., as Kennan did when he proposed the "containment" of the Soviet Union in the late 1940s.
So what exactly is the president's strategy? "It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shiites weren't intent on killing each other," the president explained in the New Yorker. "And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion . . . you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran."
Moreover, he continued, if only "the Palestinian issue" could be "unwound," then another "new equilibrium" could be created, allowing Israel to "enter into even an informal alliance with at least normalized diplomatic relations" with the Sunni states. The president has evidently been reading up about international relations and has reached the chapter on the "balance of power." The trouble with his analysis is that it does not explain why any of the interested parties should sign up for his balancing act.
As Nixon-era Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argued more than half a century ago in his book "A World Restored," balance is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. "The balance of power only limits the scope of aggression but does not prevent it," Dr. Kissinger wrote. "The balance of power is the classic expression of the lesson of history that no order is safe without physical safeguards against aggression."
What that implied in the 19th century was that Britain was the "balancer"—the superpower that retained the option to intervene in Europe to preserve balance. The problem with the current U.S. geopolitical taper is that President Obama is not willing to play that role in the Middle East today. In his ignominious call to inaction on Syria in September, he explicitly said it: "America is not the world's policeman."
But balance without an enforcer is almost inconceivable. Iran remains a revolutionary power; it has no serious intention of giving up its nuclear-arms program; the talks in Vienna are a sham. Both sides in the escalating regional "Clash of Sects"—Shiite and Sunni—have an incentive to increase their aggression because they see hegemony in a post-American Middle East as an attainable goal.
The geopolitical taper is a multifaceted phenomenon. For domestic political as well as fiscal reasons, this administration is presiding over deep cuts in military spending. No doubt the Pentagon's budget is in many respects bloated. But, as Philip Zelikow has recently argued, the cuts are taking place without any clear agreement on what the country's future military needs are.
Thus far, the U.S. "pivot" from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific region, announced in 2012, is the nearest this administration has come to a grand strategy. But such a shift of resources makes no sense if it leaves the former region ablaze and merely adds to tension in the latter. A serious strategy would surely make some attempt to establish linkage between the Far East and the Middle East. It is the Chinese, not the Americans, who are becoming increasingly dependent on Middle Eastern oil. Yet all the pivot achieved was to arouse suspicion in Beijing that some kind of "containment" of China is being contemplated.
Maybe, on reflection, it is not a Kennan that Mr. Obama needs, but a Kissinger. "The attainment of peace is not as easy as the desire for it," Dr. Kissinger once observed.
"Those ages which in retrospect seem most peaceful were least in search of peace. Those whose quest for it seems unending appear least able to achieve tranquillity. Whenever peace—conceived as the avoidance of war—has been the primary objective . . . the international system has been at the mercy of [its] most ruthless member."Those are words this president, at a time when there is much ruthlessness abroad in the world, would do well to ponder.
*Mr. Ferguson is a history professor at Harvard and a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. His most recent book is "The Great Degeneration" (Penguin Press, 2013).