- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2017

The fate of Syria in the wake of the country’s devastating six-year civil war will be dictated in Moscow, not Washington, reaffirming President Bashar Assad’s regime’s hold on power, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee said Friday.

The December recapture of the Syrian city of Aleppo, a long-held redoubt for moderate forces battling to topple the Assad regime, marked the beginning of the end of the war and stands as the final rebuke of President Obama’s strategy in the region, Sen. Bob Corker said.

“Western Syria is over,” Mr. Corker, Tennessee Republican, told reporters Friday during a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington. “This is all going to be decided on Russia’s terms.”

Russian negotiators, along with Turkish and Iranian diplomats, shepherded the cease-fire deal that brought Aleppo back under regime control in last month. Moscow also drafted the tentative peace plan that has resulted in the cessation of hostilities in the country.

Both pacts were facilitated without the help of the United States. Russia’s outsized political and military role in Syria all but guarantees Assad will remain in power.

The Obama administration has insisted that Mr. Assad, who is backed by both Russia and Iran, must be replaced as part of any negotiated settlement, saying the war has been so brutal that large parts of the Syrian population would never accept him as their leader.

But that demand is losing force in the face of the Syrian government’s recent battlefield successes, enabled by Russia’s forces.

Russian commanders on Friday began withdrawing its forces from the region, ordering the Kuznetsov strike group back to Moscow. Anchored off the Syrian coastline, the strike group provided much of the air power needed to force rebel fighters in Aleppo to surrender.

But the fall of Aleppo and Russia’s resurgence in Syria were directly tied to the Obama administration indecisive policy for the country.

Mr. Putin was able to successfully “build clout for himself in the vacuum” left behind in Syria as a result of U.S. inaction in the country, according to the Tennessee Republican.

Mr. Obama’s infamous “red line” warning in 2012 against Syria’s use of chemical weapons against rebel forces pushed Washington and Damascus onto a collision course, with U.S. warships anchored off of the Syrian coast ready to launch missiles on government targets.

In the end, the White House held its fire and a the U.S. and Russia brokered a disarmament plan to remove Mr. Assad’s chemical stockpiles.

Administration officials hailed the deal as a diplomatic breakthrough. White House critics, including Donald Trump, as a sign of weakness.

Even as the Russian-brokered chemical disarmament plan progressed, the White House embarked on clandestine efforts to train and arm moderate factions of the Syrian opposition.

The U.S. training mission in Syria, as well as efforts assist local forces in Yemen and Libya, were the main underpinnings of Mr. Obama’s counter-extremist strategy.

But that under resourced and underfunded strategy, according to Mr. Corker, “was a day late and a dollar short when it mattered,” forcing moderate rebel groups to turn to Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates for support.

Mr. Trump has repeatedly vowed to end all U.S. military efforts to back Syrian militias battling the Islamic State and the Assad regime. U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel has publicly called upon the new administration to retain the Syrian training program.

When asked whether the U.S. training program would continue under a Trump White House, Mr. Corker replied: “It is questionable. We did not do what we said we would do, and we [all this] happen.”

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