As Syria’s rebel fighters, seeking to oust national dictator, lose areas in the Syrian city of Aleppo in light of a deepening of the worst humanitarian crisis in decades, chances are that U.S. President Barack Obama’s legacy is irrevocably marred.
The rebel loss would underscore the failure of U.S. efforts to stem the carnage from Syria’s nearly six-year-old civil war, leading some critics to predict that Obama’s record will be tarnished just as President Bill Clinton’s was by his refusal to intervene to halt the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
More so, if Trump follows through after Aleppo’s fall on his pledge to cooperate with Russia, Assad’s military patron, there is a risk that frustrated moderate rebels could gravitate toward militant factions that pose a potential threat to Western interests.
With the U.S.-aligned rebels facing defeat by regime forces backed by Russia and Iran, Obama leading from behind approach to the Syrian conflict will roll down the hill just weeks before he hands power to President-elect Donald Trump on Jan. 20.
“There is no doubt he will be hammered in historical terms,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to Republican and Democratic administrations. “The question will be why he didn’t do more.”
While the war is expected to grind on, Syrian regime head Bashar al-Assad’s victory in Aleppo would provide fresh fodder for Trump, who has argued the insurgency has collapsed, and the United States should revamp its fight against ISIS by joining up with Russia, and by extension, Assad.
Syria has been one of the main testing grounds for Obama’s doctrine of relying on local proxy fighters instead of large-scale U.S. military deployments, reflecting his reluctance to be drawn back into unpopular ground conflicts like the Iraq war.
The approach has faltered in Syria, where on Tuesday the Syrian army said it could declare full control over eastern Aleppo by Wednesday. A deal was struck to allow the remaining rebel fighters to evacuate, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said.
“Leading from behind leaves a vacuum that is filled by the Bashar Assads and Vladimir Putins of the world,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, referring to how an Obama aide described his strategy. “I think history will judge that these are unintended results that are going to cause great challenges to the United States for years to come.”
“Obama has pursued a policy of calculated dithering in Syria, just agonizing over the choices until they no longer existed,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.
A Republican, Trump has vowed a dramatic shift from Obama’s cautious strategy toward a more aggressive approach – although exactly how he will proceed remains unclear.
He will inherit an increasingly complicated conflict in Syria, and many analysts fear his lack of foreign policy experience could lead to dangerous miscalculations.
As Assad himself turns from the wreckage of Aleppo to assert his authority over a fractured Syria, he will have to contend with the loss of swaths of his country for the time being and tough pockets of resistance still to crush.
The war has taken some 400,000 lives and made more than 11 million people homeless, driving many into neighboring countries or on a long perilous trek to Europe.