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Did Obama Really “Surrender the Middle East to Putin?”

News Abroad
tags: Middle East, Syria, Putin, Obama



Brian Glyn Williams worked for the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center and U.S. Army’s Information Operations team in Afghanistan and is author of The Last Warlord. The Life and Legend of the Afghan Warrior who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime


"President Barack Obama" by Official White House Photo by Pete Souza - P120612PS-0463 (direct link). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons."Putin with flag of Russia" by Kremlin.ru. Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Commons.


A perusal of the “writing on the hall” commentary of the Right Wing in the last two months--since a small Russian force of 2,000 was inserted into the remaining Syrian government-controlled portions of Syria on September 30th--leads to one inevitable conclusion. Namely, that Obama’s “inactivity, passiveness and over caution” have left a gaping void in the Middle East that has been filled by a newly assertive Russia. It is easy to find gloom and doom pronouncements by Republican politicians and the Right Wing punditocracy decrying America’s receding influence and Russia’s growing domination of the “entire” region. Senator John McCain captured this hand-wringing sentiment when he stated “the weakness and feckless foreign policy of the president of the United States” has allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to “gain significant control of the entire Middle East.” He continued, “This is an incredible display of American weakness. This is really a remarkable point in American history. They [the Russians] now have a major place in the Middle East that they haven’t had since Anwar Sadat threw the Russians out of Egypt in 1973.”

The flagship press of the Right, the Weekly Standard, had a headline which declared “Seventy Years of U.S. Middle East Policy Overturned” while Fox New’s most respected pundit, Charles Krauthammer, despairingly opined: “Obama’s response to all this? Nothing. He has washed his hands of the region, still the centre of world oil production and trade, and still the world’s most volatile region, seething with virulent jihadism ready for export. When you call something a quagmire you have told the world that you’re out and staying out. Russia and Iran will have their way. “

But is there any truth to these epitaphs of over 70 years of American domination of the Middle East and prognostications that Russia is “gaining control of the entire Middle East?”

Not surprisingly, recent history shows that America’s dominance of the Middle East and the larger Islamic world remains unchallenged and that Putin’s desperate gamble to bolster the rump Syrian state that controls just 20 percent of Syria has already begun to have negative ramifications for his country. Most importantly, the Russian president’s gambit shows just how comparatively limited Moscow’s influence is in this vast region that has been dominated by the U.S. since the end of World War II.

Putin vs. Obama in the Deserts of the Islamic World.

A comparison of the U.S. and Russian military “footprints” and military operations in the Middle East and Islamic world shows that America, the world’s “benign hegemon,” still overwhelmingly dominates a vast swath of territory from Pakistan to Morocco. For starters, the U.S. has a constellation of military bases that spans the region from the large airfields at Bagram, Kandahar, Shindand, Kabul and Jalalabad in Afghanistan, to Sigonella Naval Air Station off the coast of North Africa. This latter base was heavily used to bomb Qaddafi’s Libyan forces during Obama’s highly successful Operation Freedom Falcon, which prevented Qaddafi from waging a genocidal war against his people (this air campaign was supported at the time by Republicans like Senator McCain). The base at Shindand in western Afghanistan, near the Iranian border, has been used to deploy advanced RQ 170 spy drones over Iran to monitor its nuclear program and the bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan are home to the CIA’s Taliban-hunting Predator and Reaper drone fleets.

Obama, known by the Pakistanis as “Obomba,” has exponentially ramped up the drone assassination campaign against militants and terrorists hiding out in Pakistan’s remote tribal zones. Bush launched a mere 48 drone strikes against the terrorists in Pakistan in his two terms in office, whereas Obama has commenced a withering campaign consisting of 353 strikes (i.e. more than seven times the number of strikes carried out by his Republican predecessor). Obama’s aggressive assassination campaign has wiped out Al Qaeda Central and consecutively killed the commanders of the Pakistani Taliban on three separate occasions. It will be recalled that the drones operate in the same remote tribal region where Obama ordered Navy Seal Team 6 to invade Pakistani airspace and kill Bin Laden, despite the potential political fallout from such an aggressive act.

As for the conflict in the neighboring country of Afghanistan, recall that it was dubbed the “Forgotten War” while Bush was president and was relegated to a mere afterthought of the war against Sunni-Baathist insurgents in Iraq. As a result of this neglect (in 2007 there were 30,000 troops in Afghanistan compared to 168,000 in the smaller country of Iraq), the Taliban re-infiltrated the country from their staging grounds in the tribal zones of Pakistan and conquered to within one hour of the Afghan capital of Kabul. Newly elected President Obama, who had long called Afghanistan the “war that has to be won,” felt that the elective war in Iraq had sucked all the oxygen out of the original theater of the “war on terror.” He understood that the woefully insufficient numbers of U.S. troops were being swarmed by Taliban insurgents. Afghanistan, the “other war,” was in danger of being lost.



In response, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has stated Obama “owned” the war in Afghanistan and made the unpopular decision to rush 29,000 troops there in March of 2009. He then sent a larger “surge” of 33,000 troops to Afghanistan in 2010. These desperately-needed reinforcements crushed the Taliban in the strategic southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar and gave the Afghan government the breathing space it needed to train a 350,000 man security force. These Obama surge troops were also used to reinforce dozens of small C.O.P.s (Command Out Posts), several of which had come close to being overrun.

The gem in America’s array of bases is, however, the Fifth Fleet’s headquarters at Manama, Bahrain which allows the U.S. to dominate the strategic Persian Gulf. This base is home to a massive carrier strike group (this consists of an aircraft carrier, at least one cruiser, a destroyer squadron of at least two destroyers and/or frigates, and a carrier air wing of 65 to 70 aircraft, and submarines), an Amphibious Ready Group or Expeditionary Strike Group, and other ships and aircraft with almost 15,000 people serving afloat. Russia has no such naval, air, amphibious projection capacity in this vital region. The Navy has recently, under Obama, moved to expand the base at Manama to build more “infrastructure and capacity” to support U.S. operations in this strategic, oil rich region.

U.S. Central Command also has Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar which is home to U.S. Air Force Central Command and the 379th Expeditionary Wing of the Air Force and 3,300 troops. Squadrons of aircraft flying from this base, which has the longest runway in the entire region, have played a key role in bombing and halting ISIS offensives in places like Kobane and Iraqi Kurdistan in the last two years. There have been hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements in this vital base in the last three years.

The U.S. also has eight bases in Kuwait, which is a vital ally that was saved in the First Gulf War. Further to the south in Djibouti, the U.S. has an airbase at Camp Lemonier where 4,000 personnel serve. This base, which is used to monitor the strategic Bab al Mandab Straits to the Red Sea, has seen stepped up operations by drones and Joint Special Operations Command under Obama. Their goal has been to kill Al Shabab Islamic militants who have been trying to turn Somalia into a Taliban-style theocracy. Among the scores of top militants killed in Obama’s deadly drone war in Somalia was Adan Garar, the terrorist mastermind behind an attack on a mall in Kenya that left over 60 dead.

The base in Djibouti has also been used under the Obama administration to launch wide-ranging drone hunts to destroy ‘Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ strongholds and to hunt High Value Targets in nearby Yemen. Drones from this base helped repulse ‘Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ attacks from the strategic Abyan Province two years ago and to kill the notorious head of this terrorist organization, Nasir al Washiri, just this summer.

In addition to these bases, there is the nuclear armed Israeli state, which has been called the “U.S.S. Israel.” In November, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu asked Obama for $50 billion (not million, billion) and the U.S. president agreed to the urgency of the request according to the Israeli Prime Minister (talks are commencing this month to iron out the details). This is the sort of funding for an ally that Russia, whose economy has been severely hurt by deep cutting economic sanctions placed on it by the Obama administration (to punish it for invading the Ukraine last year), could never afford.

Speaking of money. It should also be noted that Obama continues to pay Egypt, which is at war with a regional ISIS affiliate in the Sinai, over $1 billion a year. Obama also recently authorized the release of 125 Abrams tanks and 12 F-16 fighter jets to Egypt which is America’s key Muslim ally in the region and the world’s largest Arab country (the delivery of these weapons had been halted by Congress).

Then there is the matter of Iran. Obama organized crippling sanctions on Iran designed to punish it for over a decade of brazen efforts to build a nuclear weapons program. The sanctions, which devastated the Iranian economy, brought the fanatically anti-American ayatollahs to the negotiating table. Under the agreement between Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (which was reached in conjunction with Russia, France, China, Britain and Germany), Iran agreed to eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, cut its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98%, and reduce by about two-thirds the number of its centrifuges for at least fifteen years. This agreement has outraged the conservatives in Iran who (correctly) feel it will most likely lead to the end of their aspirations to become a nuclear power.

Which brings us to Iraq. Obama launched an aerial war on ISIS in the summer of 2014 designed to halt its sudden expansion from the Sunni heartlands towards the pro-American enclave of Kurdistan in northern Iraq. The American-led air campaign devastated ISIS fighters and halted their advance towards the oil fields of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, which are claimed by the Kurdish Regional Government. The air strikes also saved the endangered Yazidi pagans of the Sinjar region from genocide.

In September of 2014, Obama launched offensive air operations against ISIS in Syria as well and the campaign in Iraq and Syria against their so-called Caliphate became known as Operation Inherent Resolve. Its first great trial was the defense of the strategic Kurdish border town of Kobane in northern Syria. With the world watching, the see-sawing battle for Kobane became a test for Obama’s new strategy of confronting ISIS by supporting local forces with arms and bombings. To save the city, Central Command air-dropped weapons to Kobane’s Kurdish defenders and launched waves of precision bombing runs that killed hundreds of ISIS fighters. In all, the U.S. hit more than one thousand targets in and around Kobane. As their losses became unsustainable, ISIS finally pulled back and by January of 2015 acknowledged that its forces had been defeated in the four-month battle for Kobane.

There were other victories as well for Obama. Such as the U.S. Air Force-backed Iraqi government offensive to retake Saluhudin Province (including Hussein’s home town of Tikrit) from ISIS in the spring of 2015. ISIS has also lost over 200 villages in northern Syria to US-backed Kurds, including the strategic town of Tel Abyad, in recent months. In addition, it has suffered earlier defeats in Iraq to Obama’s airpower when it lost the Haditha and Mosul dams in the summer of 2014, and was repulsed at Amerli, Ayn al Asad Airbase, Sinjar and other places. U.S. and Coalition aircraft have also actively supported Iraqi Army ground operations in Baiji, and Ramadi, they have destroyed scores of ISIS command and control facilities in Syria and Iraq killing thousands, and they patrol the skies hunting for “pop up” targets of opportunity. Dozens of top ISIS leaders have been killed in drone strikes, convoys transporting oil have also been destroyed, and Obama recently acquired the use of the massive air base of Incirlik in southeastern Turkey near the Syrian border to bomb ISIS on short notice.

The White House announced in August 2015 “We have seen significant progress in terms of rolling back ISIL [ISIS] gains inside of Iraq, and the latest statistic is that up to 25 percent of the populated area that was previously controlled by ISIL is now [an area] where ISIL can no longer enjoy freedom of movement.” Air Force Lt. Gen. John W. Hesterman III has said of the US air campaign that it is killing as much as one thousand ISIS fighters a month, “we kill them whenever we find them.”

Obama is not alone in this campaign and has mustered a global alliance of over 60 countries to assist Central Command. Jordanians, Saudis, the French, the British, Kuwaitis etc. have all carried out bombings of ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq in conjunction with the Americans. Few can forget the televised image of a Jordanian pilot who was shot down and captured by ISIS being burned alive or the images of French Mirage and Rafale aircraft bombing the ISIS capital of Raqqa to punish the terrorists for the November attacks in Paris.

By the summer of 2015, 10,000 ISIS members had been killed in over 5,827 airstrikes by Coalition aircraft (78% of them by US aircraft). By November 2015, the number of airstrikes on ISIS has risen to more than 8,000. The U.S. claimed to have destroyed 2,600 ISIS targets by October 2015.

How does Russia stack up, in light of all the above? Putin’s desperate attempt to prop up the embattled Syrian Assad regime, which has been pushed into about 20 percent of Syria on the western borders of the country, by contrast, has been far more limited. Moscow’s much-touted efforts to bolster an Assad regime ground offensive to retake Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, was repulsed by CIA-backed moderate rebels from the Jaish al Fatah (Army of Conquest) in October and November. These anti-Assad rebels used American-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles to destroy Syrian tanks being supported by Russian Sukoi tactical bombers and Hind attack helicopters in what was essentially a proxy fight between Putin and Obama. Russia’s fears for the region were not assuaged when, in early December, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the U.S. was deploying a new "specialized expeditionary targeting force" to Iraq to conduct raids against ISIS on the ground in that country and in Syria.

Never was Russia’s comparative weakness more on display, however, than in the recent shoot down of a Russian SU-24 bomber by a Turkish F-16 Eagle. The Russian plane was bombing US and Turkish-backed moderate Turkmen rebels in northern Syria when it trespassed into Turkish airspace in November. The Turkish president subsequently refused to apologize for the death of the Russian pilot or the death of a Russian Marine killed in trying to save his co-pilot from Turkmen rebels. Putin’s inability to get redress from NATO member Turkey (which was publicly backed by Obama) humiliated the Russian leader and his nation and exposed Russia’s weakness to the world.

Russia was further humiliated by the ISIS beheading of a Russian spy on December 3rd. To compound matters, in October ‘ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula’ punished Putin for intervening in Syria by blowing up a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai. This terror act led to the death of 217 Russians and was Russia’s worst aviation disaster. These three consecutive setbacks dismayed many Russians who decried Putin’s costly adventurism in the Middle East. One can only imagine the Republican outcry if a CIA operative had been similarly beheaded by ISIS, a U.S. bomber shot down by Russia, and an American passenger plane carrying 217 had been blown up by ISIS on Obama’s watch. Few on the Right would have recognized our president’s strength as they are now doing in the case of Putin if we’d suffered such embarrassing setbacks.

It should also be noted that Russia’s footprint is of course far smaller in the Middle East than that of the Americans. It has risen to just 4,000 personnel, primarily base security and logistical support staff, at the small Hmeimim air base near Latakia, in western Syria (America by contrast has over 45,000 troops in the Mid East and approximately 10,000 troops in Afghanistan serving alongside 3,000 NATO troops for a total of 58,000). While Republicans speak of Russia’s “bases” in Syria this actually an exaggeration. Russia actually leases a primitive docking facility in Tartus, on the western coast of Syria. This small facility is not big enough to be designated a “base,” instead it is a “Material Technical Support Point.” The Russian facility consists of two floating piers and an “Amur-class floating workshop” and is not capable of supporting any of Russia’s major warships, such as frigates, destroyers or Russia’s one comparatively small aircraft carrier (America by contrast has 20 aircraft carriers and the requisite facilities to host them in the region).

And, most importantly, Putin’s intervention in Syria on behalf of the embattled Shiite regime of Bashar al Assad has infuriated Sunni Arabs across the Middle East (Sunnis are 90 percent of the world’s Muslims). Saudi clerics have been calling for a jihad against Russia and our Sunni Arab allies have been driven closer to Obama by the Russian support for the Shiite Assad regime in Syria they are actively working with us to overthrow.

In summary, Putin’s quixotic foray into the war in Syria (the Russians are not in Iraq), which has the limited objectives of supporting the collapsing Syrian government foothold in the northwest, is hardly a sign that his country has “eclipsed America in the entire Middle East” due to Obama’s negligence. Exaggerated prognostications by Republicans that this small Russian force of just 4,000 troops is supplanting 70 years of American dominance in the Arab and wider Islamic world are what the Russians call dezinformatsiia (disinformation) and agitprop (agitation-propaganda). Such politically-motivated pronouncements are not accurate reflections of the true depth of America’s deep and continuing involvement in the region under Obama, from the drone-dominated skies of Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan to the contracting lands of the ISIS “Caliphate” in northern Syria and central Iraq.



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