Obama fumbles for credibility in Syria as Russia and Iran seize initiative

President Barack Obama, centre, discusses Syria policy with his national security advisers in August 2013. Two years later the US is no nearer a successful strategy. Photograph: The White House/Getty Images President Barack Obama, centre, discusses Syria policy with his national security advisers in August 2013. Two years later the US is no nearer a successful strategy.

Under withering fire from political opponents, Barack Obama is once again shuffling his Syria cards, hoping against hope that he can salvage US credibility from the wreckage of his twin failures to defeat Isis terror and topple Bashar al-Assad.

Fear is driving Obama’s latest rethink: fear that Russia and Iran are winning the strategic tug-of-war for decisive influence in both Syria and Iraq; and fear that his Middle East legacy will be an anarchic arc of muddle and mayhem stretching from Mosul to the Mediterranean.

US officials told Congress this week the White House is considering a range of rejigged military options to fight Isis. They include temporary deployments of limited numbers of special forces in Syria, and attack helicopters in Iraq, plus more forward-based target-spotters to increase the accuracy and efficacy of coalition air strikes.

Ash Carter, the US defence secretary, indicated the Pentagon was encouraged by the success of last week’s Delta Force operation to rescue Isis hostages in Hawija, northern Iraq. He predicted “more of this kind of thing”.

Carter said the revamped strategy would focus on the “three Rs” – raids, Raqqa [the Isis stronghold in Syria] and Ramadi [the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, which fell to Isis in May].

“We expect to intensify our air campaign, including with additional US and coalition aircraft, to target Isil with a higher and heavier rate of strikes,” he said. Meanwhile, US forces would not shy away from “direct action on the ground”.

Despite Turkish objections, Washington is also considering closer cooperation with Syrian Kurdish militias that have ejected Isis from territory along Syria’s northern border.

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.

But as in Afghanistan, where he recently postponed troop withdrawals indefinitely, this latest rejig smacks of desperation. It is another reminder of how Obama’s trademark policy to free the US of its Middle Eastern military entanglements has foundered on geopolitical realities.

Obama declined to attack Assad even after the Syrian president crossed a red line by using chemical weapons. His attempts to train Syrian rebels flopped. In Iraq, 3,500 US 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 US 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 US 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 and power.

Obama’s predicament helps explain why the US is showing more interest in a compromise transition deal to end the Syrian war, along lines proposed by Moscow. Commentators say the White House is ready to try anything.

Iran’s inclusion in Friday’s Vienna talks, although welcome in several respects, is essentially a concession prompted by US weakness. It comes despite Tehran’s announcement this week of increased military support for Assad.

Obama’s many critics say his visceral fear of the Middle East quagmire has allowed Iran and Russia to run rings around him. Veteran columnist Charles Krauthammer was typically scathing: “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,” Krauthammer wrote.

“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.”