The U.S. Middle East Policy of “Strategic Ambiguity” and Russia’s Take Charge Approach

Obama’s last ditch efforts to beef up its military response in the Middle East smack of fear as the desire to avoid entanglements once again staggers on the region’s geopolitical realities…

Russia has maneuvered to make the U.S. look to Russia as the stabilizer in the Syrian conflict since the Obama administration appears not interested in the U.S. being the solution to the Syria/ISIS/Iraq problem.

Under sometimes scornful, sometimes contemptuous, and most of the time scathing, criticism from his political opponents, Barack Obama is once again shuffling his Syria cards, hoping against hope that he can salvage U.S. credibility from the wreckage of his twin failures to defeat ISIS terrorists and it’s on again, off again attempts to topple Bashir al-Assad … who less than five years ago was seen by the administration as a reformist.

Fear perhaps of his failed legacy and not America’s resolve and reputation is driving Obama’s latest rethink: fear that Russia and Iran are succeeding and winning the strategic tug-of-war for decisive influence in both Syria and Iraq; and fear that again, his Middle East legacy will be an anarchic arc of muddle and mayhem stretching from Yemen to the Mediterranean and from Morocco to Afghanistan.

U.S. officials told Congress this week that the White House is considering a range of rearranged military options to counter and fight ISIS. They include; temporary deployments of limited numbers of special operations forces and attack helicopters in Syria and Iraq, plus more forward-based Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) special operations target-spotters who can lase ISIS targets to increase the accuracy and efficacy of U.S. combat air strikes. Yet, still no effort to present a much needed and sound, coherent regional strategic policy that brings together concerted U.S. national power, military capability, and resolve to win.

SecDef Ash Carter, indicated the Pentagon was encouraged by the success of last week’s Delta Force operation to rescue ISIS-held hostages in the town of Hawija, in northern Iraq. He predicted “more of this kind of thing”.

Additionally, Carter in a briefing this week said, the so-called revamped strategy would focus on the “three Rs” – raids, Raqqa (ISIS’ regional stronghold and headquarters in Syria) and Ramadi (the critical provincial capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, which fell to Isis in May of this year).  Carter further, when on to say; “We expect to intensify our air campaign, which will include additional U.S. and coalition aircraft, to target ISIS with a higher and heavier rate of strikes.” In the meantime, U.S. forces would not shy away from “direct action on the ground”. Despite Turkish objections, the White House is also considering closer cooperation with Syrian Kurdish militias that have ejected ISIS from key areas of its territory along Syria’s northern border and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga inside northeast Iraq. U.S. special operations trainers have for months been working with the Peshmerga fighters providing what the Pentagon described as a U.S. effort to “train, advise and assist” mission and not in an active combat mission.

Obama’s rethink does not mean he is about to renege on his vow to avoid “boots on the ground” combat operations in Syria, despite excitable reports to the contrary. Nor is he about to recommence war-fighting in Iraq, particularly at a conventional level. However, as in Afghanistan, where he recently postponed a significant troop withdrawal indefinitely, this latest rejig indicates a significant degree of desperation. It is another reminder of how Obama’s trademark policy to free and remove the U.S. of its critical Middle Eastern military engagement and leadership role, has foundered on the regions geopolitical realities.

Obama declined to attack Bashir al-Assad even after the Syrian president crossed a red line by using chemical weapons. His attempts to train Syrian rebels flopped. While in Iraq, 3,500 U.S. trainers and advisers have been unable to improve the Iraqi army’s dismal performance.

Now Iraq’s parliament, dominated by pro-Iran Shias who say the U.S. has let Iraq down, is pressing the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to invite Russia to extend its Syrian air raids into Iraq, too. There can be little doubt Vladimir Putin would dearly like to supplant the U.S. as Baghdad’s new best friend. As with his backing of Assad against the west, Russia’s leader is waging a wider struggle for Middle East influence, power, and dominance, and with a more strategic agenda, a wide-Mid-East access and subsequently M-d-East oil.

Obama’s predicament helps explain why the U.S. is showing more interest in a compromise transition deal to end the Syrian war, more distinctly along lines proposed by Moscow. As a consequence for the sake of throwing in the towel, and more so purely to save Obama’s ever failing legacy — most experts view the White House’s eleventh hour scramble as being essentially a gamble … perhaps a Hail Mary play option of being on the ropes and ready to try anything.

Iran’s inclusion in this Friday’s Vienna talks, although welcome in several respects, is essentially a concession prompted by and the result of U.S. failure and weakness and ineptitude when it comes to dealing complex issues of foreign policy and national. It comes perhaps unexpectedly, despite Tehran’s announcement this week of increased military support for Assad, with Russia providing heavy-lift of Iranian military equipment into Syria. This further compounds the situation and demonstrates Russia strategic multi-tier and multi-level effort to project airlift, naval support, combined combat air and combined ground arms operations and long-distance cruise missile strikes into Syria, all in a period of just under two months.

Obama’s many critics say his visceral fear of the Middle East quagmire he created, yes he created it, due his failed effort to craft and implement  both a strategic and coherent strategy for the region, to counter, degrade and defeat ISIS, and to set a course to deal with a greater and ever more radical Islamic threat over the long-term. In turn, Obama’s failed policy and the resulting void it created, has allowed Russia and Iran to run rings around him.   

For over a year seasoned national security veterans and experts has been exceedingly presented scathing critiques and assessments of his policy, yet Obama’s response to the debate, the plausible recommendations, and countless options and ideas from both sides of the political aisle has been … well nothing. Obama in a sense has washed his hands of the region, or at at least attempted to – yet the Middle East is still the center of world oil production, a critical juncture for world trade between east and west, and still the world’s most volatile region, seething with virulent radical jihadism and its associated mass of hardline terrorist groups, failed states and a major state sponsors of terrorists.

When your policies, or lack thereof systematically lead to something of a quagmire and a morass, you have essentially telegraphed to the world that you are no longer interested and that you’re out, and staying out. As we are now witnessing — Russia and Iran will have their way, on their terms and on their timeline.

Jim Waurishuk, Colonel, USAF

Jim Waurishuk is a retired USAF Colonel, serving nearly 30-years as a career senior intelligence and political-military affairs officer and special mission intelligence officer with expertise in strategic intelligence, international strategic studies and policy, and asymmetric warfare. He served combat and combat-support tours in Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as on numerous special operations and special mission intelligence contingencies in Central America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. He served as a special mission intelligence officer assigned to multiple Joint Special Operations units, and with the CIA’s Asymmetric Warfare Task Force, as well as in international and foreign advisory positions. He served as Deputy Director for Intelligence for U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) during the peak years of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Global War on Terrorism. He is a former White House National Security Council staffer and a former Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C. He served as a senior advisor to the Commander U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and is Vice President of the Special Ops-OPSEC -- which provides strategic and operational security analysis and assessments to governmental and private entities, as well as media organizations on national security issues, policy, and processes. He currently provides advisory and consulting services on national security, international strategic policy, and strategy assessments for the U.S. and foreign private sector and governments entities, media groups and outlets, and to political groups, forums, and political candidates. He is an author and writer providing regular commentary and opinion to national and local TV, radio networks, and for both print and online publications, as well as speaking engagements to business, political, civic and private groups on national security matters – focusing on international strategic policy and engagement, and strategic intelligence, and subject matter expertise on special mission intelligence and operations, counter-terrorism, and asymmetric warfare and conflict.