During the next few days, pundits will be designating their “winners and losers” of 2014. There can be little doubt about the year’s two biggest winners. Clearly, they are Bashar al-Assad and ISIS. Third place goes to Iran, which finds itself in greatly improved economic shape and within striking distance of becoming a nuclear power.
But that’s nothing compared to Assad’s remarkable, turnaround year. As Seth Mandel, quoting NPR, reminds us:
At the beginning of 2014, Syrian President Bashar Assad had agreed to send his ministers to take part in negotiations in Switzerland, and his future as Syria’s ruler was not looking very bright.
He was accused of killing tens of thousands of his own people in a civil war that was nearly three years old. The opposition was demanding Assad’s ouster. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Switzerland and called loudly for a political transition in Syria. He was clear about who would not be involved.
“Bashar Assad will not be part of that transition government. There is no way — no way possible in the imagination — that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern,” he said.
Fast-forward to the present. Those talks were abandoned. Assad is still in the presidential palace in Damascus. And although the United States is bombing Syria, it’s not targeting Assad’s army but the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS.
Most astonishingly, as Middle East expert Joshua Landis told NPR, Assad “has the United States as a strategic ally.”
ISIS also had a phenomenal 2014. At the beginning of the year, President Obama proclaimed it al Qaeda’s “jayvee.” Even discounting for Obama’s shocking ignorance of world affairs, one must marvel at ISIS’s romp through Iraq, coupled with its successes in Syria. Now installed on the outskirts of Baghdad as well as on the Turkish-Syrian border, “the jayvee” controls, to one degree or another, an area that Landis says is the size of Britain.
There are common denominators in these two success stories. One is the cluelessness of the Obama administration. A year ago, John Kerry found it beyond the imagination that Assad could remain a legitimate head of state. Now Assad the United States is a “strategic ally.”
A year ago, Obama ridiculed ISIS as the jayvee. Now, against every instinct he possesses, Obama is sending U.S. military personnel to help fight it.
A second common denominator is the Obama administration’s role in the successes of Assad and ISIS. If, early on, the U.S. had established a no-fly zone in Syria, as many advocated, Assad almost surely would not have made his stunning comeback.
If in addition to establishing a no-fly zone, Obama early on had provided robust support to Assad’s non-jihadist opposition, Assad might have been overthrown. In the same scenario, with the U.S. and the non-jihadist opposition an effective force, ISIS would not likely have risen in Syria.
Finally, if Obama had not pulled all of our troops out of Iraq, it’s far less likely that ISIS could have pulled off its blitzkrieg there. Even if Obama had merely recognized the threat posed by ISIS a year ago and acted accordingly back then, the situation in Iraq would be significantly less parlous.
The final common denominator is the relationship between the success of Assad and of ISIS. As Hassan Hassan, an analyst at the Delma Institute, a research center in Abu Dhabi, put it:
Assad has been key to [ISIS's] rise in Syria and beyond. When Islamic radicals took over Raqqa, the first province to fall under rebels’ control in its entirety, it was remarkable that the regime did not follow the same policy it had consistently employed elsewhere, which is to shower liberated territories with bombs, day and night.
Raqqa was saved the fate of Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, Homs and Deraa. ISIS soon controlled the province, painted government buildings in black and turned them into bases. The group’s bases were easy to spot, for about a year and a half. Elsewhere, too, Assad allowed ISIS to grow and fester. The regime has been buying oil from it and other extremist groups after it lost control of most of the country’s oilfields and gas plants.
By the same token, ISIS has contributed to Assad’s comeback. Initially, fear of Islamist groups helped cause the U.S. to back off supporting Assad’s overthrow. Now, it is pushing us into a “strategic alliance” with the butcher.
Who, then, is the biggest loser of 2014? Not Barack Obama. From all that appears, he cares practically nothing about the successes of Assad and Iran (a close ally, by the way, of the Syrian dictator), and little about the rise of ISIS. His interest is in the radical transformation of the United States. In 2014 he doubled-down on advancing that interest through administrative fiat.
The losers are ordinary Iraqis and Syrians, and also U.S. strategic interests. As Mandel concludes:
ISIS is undermining our attempts to leave behind a stable Iraq and splitting territory next door in Syria with Assad, Iran’s proxy. It’s true that Assad had a pretty good year considering where he was heading into 2014. But that’s another way of saying America’s enemies had a pretty good year.