If Obama is “turning the page” on domestic policy, as he suggested in his state of the union address, there is also a sense in which he is turning an important page in his international policy, albeit below the radar screen.
The New York Times this week reported what it called Obama's and the west's "quiet retreat from its demand that Syria's president, Bashar Assad, step down immediately".
That’s a euphemism for a very substantial policy U-turn, in effect an embracing of a morally dubious but pragmatic “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” policy. Why? Because the US and allies, it appears, have come to the view that Assad is the lesser of two evils, and that the war against Islamic State (IS) cannot be won while trying to overthrow him.
Direct contact is still not on, but it is understood that Iraq's government has passed on the message to Damascus that US planes on missions to bomb IS are not to be seen as a threat to Assad's forces.Western leaders now openly talk about a deal that would allow some current Syrian officials to remain in place to prevent Syria from disintegrating, like Iraq and Libya did, and they see a role for Assad in a transitional government – both the UN and Russia are pushing diplomatic initiatives that involve seeking agreements that might lead to local ceasefires or some form of powersharing between Assad's government and some opposition figures, and perhaps parliamentary elections.
That doesn’t mean altogether abandoning support for anti-Assad “democrats”, largely arms, training and some tactical leadership, but the focus has been on persuading them to turn their US-supplied weapons on IS – the US has put some $500 million into training militants to fight IS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qaeda-type groups but it will not field fighters until May.
Not that an "Assad-must-wait" policy can be admitted publicly. Turkey's prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking to journalist Patrick Cockburn in London on Tuesday, was adamant that as far as Turkey was concerned the US had not changed its position and remained committed to the overthrow of Assad. But then, as Mandy Rice Davis famously put it "He would say that wouldn't he?" Turkey's half-hearted engagement in the fight against IS is predicated on it being part of a bigger strategy that also includes ousting Assad and achieving a political settlement.
For Ankara, IS is bad, but the Syrian regime is much worse.That two Nato allies should have diametrically opposite perspectives on Syria/Assad is certainly problematic and so better simply denied. And, in truth, as Cockburn points out, the abandoning of a commitment to overthrowing Assad does not mean that the US and the west has a coherent strategy capable of displacing IS.
Cockburn, a veteran Middle East correspondent for the London Independent was in Dublin this week for the Abbey's "Theatre of War Symposium". He is the author of a recent book on the rise of IS, The Jihadis Return: Isil and the new Sunni Uprising.
Evaluating the balance of forces in both Syria and Iraq, he paints a grim picture of likely prolonged stalemate.
Neither state’s armed forces is capable of delivering a decisive killer blow – Syria’s army is showing clears signs of being “fought out”, while Iraq’s large army is shambolic, riddled with corruption and has not recovered from the rout it suffered when it folded in Mosul. Iraq’s most competent fighting force remains the Shia militias but reliance on them to retake towns held by IS is likely to undermine fatally the key strategy of both the new Iraqi government and the US, tempting Sunni tribes to break with IS. Many Sunnis in IS-held territory, with some reason, fear terrible Shia retribution.
Cockburn acknowledges, however, that IS too has problems – it is finding forced recruitment difficult and costly from among the five to six million people it now rules and seems to be having some logistical problems in terms of arms and ammunition supply.
He says the group, which controls major oilfields, still seems to be spending more than it has and wonders if Gulf money is still flowing to it surreptitiously.
Meanwhile, IS shows no sign of curbing its brutal ways. The UN human rights office reports that it has this month carried out scores of executions of men, women and children in Iraq: two IS members accused of banditry in Mosul were tied to a cross and then shot; two men accused of homosexual acts were thrown off a rooftop; four doctors in Mosul, including women, were killed for refusing to treat IS fighters; three women lawyers in the city were also reportedly executed; and a woman was stoned to death after being accused of adultery ...