There’s lots of talk about Plan B in Washington as the Obama administration looks for alternatives to its failed Syria policy. The same goes for various other parts of the region, where the administration is floating ideas about a potential last-minute change of strategy.
Whether in Syria or Palestine - and even Iraq, Libya and Yemen - the United States has seen its hopes dashed, its advice ignored, its red lines violated, and its warnings and ultimatums ridiculed.
US President Barack Obama says he’s haunted by Syria; that he’s daunted by a repeat of the Libya intervention (which he sees as his biggest failure); that he’s troubled by Israel’s settlement activities in occupied Palestine, among others.
But he remains adamant that there isn’t much he could have done to produce better results in a region that, in his words, is “going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia”.
This is of course a cop-out, and he knows it. These are mostly contemporary conflicts exacerbated by regional and foreign powers, especially by his predecessors.
Be that as it may, the Obama administration is now looking for ways to save face and perhaps regain the initiative in the Middle East. But what went wrong in the first place?
Obama had distinguished himself from his predecessor by taking the pragmatic path forward in order to chart new relationships in the Middle East.
He favoured working with the Europeans in Libya, with Iran in Iraq, with Russia in Syria and with Benjamin Netanyahu in Palestine.
But Obama’s bet on Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani backfired when they acted in their own - and not Washington’s - best interests. The American president was also disappointed by the performance of Francois Hollande and David Cameron in Libya.
The Obama administration invested huge political capital in reaching the Iran nuclear deal, but it lost pretty much everything else. It has come out empty-handed in terms of better alliances, with its credibility compromised and its deterrence weakened.
Obama’s aversion to getting involved in Middle East affairs has allowed others to do just that: Iran took advantage of the US withdrawal to enforce its own presence in Iraq; Russia took advantage of the US reluctance to intervene in Syria to deploy its military last year. And Israel expanded its presence in Palestine despite US appeals and objections.
To reason with them, Obama dispatched his chatty Secretary of State John Kerry, knowing all too well he had little or no chance of succeeding without strategic leverage.
But if Kerry were to succeed, Plan B should have been an integral part of Plan A: an explicit and credible escalatory threat to coerce his adversaries to accept his proposition. In that way, Plan B should be more of an ultimatum than an alternative.
Not having a Plan B ready is bad diplomacy. Threatening to use a hypothetical one is plain stupid. Resorting to Plan B as a mere afterthought to save face is dangerously naive.
Unfortunately, Obama’s Plan B seems to be just that: an afterthought.
A No-Fly-zone in Syria is too late in the game; one or two years too late. With the Russian military well-positioned in Syria, such a plan could trigger a major confrontation or further accelerate the Putin-Assad plans to raze Aleppo.
Likewise, training the Syrian opposition to use advanced weapons, which remains far-fetched, would lead to more bloodshed, certainly not in the absence of a comprehensive strategy to deal with Moscow and Tehran. After hundreds of thousands of deaths, Plan B can’t be fighting the Russians until the last Syrian. That seems to be Russia’s endgame to humiliate the US.
In Iraq, the Obama administration failed to respond early and adequately to the deepening sectarianism of the Iran-backed government that led to the rise of ISIL (also known as ISIS).
Moreover, Washington’s appeasement of Tehran to secure the nuclear deal didn’t result in better relations, as Iran continued to expand its influence over Iraq and Syria as it leaned closer towards Russia.
Now Washington is trying to regain the initiative by arming various Kurdish forces and deploying more forces against ISIL, all of which is alienating Turkey without curbing Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria.
Likewise in Israel and Palestine. It’s too late for the Obama administration to devise a new plan to deal with Israel’s continued illegal settlements after the White House agreed to a $38bn aid package for Israel. It simply has no leverage.
There is also talk of the US sponsoring a UN Security Council resolution setting the guidelines for resolving the Israel-Palestine “issue”.
But why would the administration that did nothing of substance to advance the cause of peace and freedom in Palestine suddenly want to decide the contours of its final solution?
Could Obama act without Clinton’s consent come November? This promises to be a terrible draft resolution. But I’d be more than happy to be proven wrong.
It’s clear the Obama administration has no time left to take on new plans or strategies. It’s just playing on the lost time until January 20, 2017.
Just as it inherited a chaotic region with diminished US influence in 2008, so the Obama administration will leave behind a violent and unstable region for the next administration to deal with.
And it will do so from an even weaker position than its predecessors because Washington’s adversaries are emboldened with no incentive to let go, and its allies are disenchanted with little reason to hang their hopes on the next president.
Plan C anyone?
This article was originally published as: ‘US-Middle East: Plan B stands for bankruptcy’.