New Delhi: Readers in India may not be interested in the crisis unfolding in Syria. But events there reveal in a big way the utter ineffectiveness of Barack Obama as the President of the world’s only superpower. A decrepit former Great Power has shown greater agility and gumption in Syria. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has authorized bombing raids whose targets are divided between the Islamic State and rebels opposed to Syria’s Russian ally, Bashar Assad. Obama has been left speechless by Putin’s daring while Western Europe cannot put together a cogent response to Russian action. It is increasingly hard to tell who is worse, Barack Obama or Jimmy Carter.

Readers getting on in age (like this writer) would know that Carter left America totally unprepared to face the coming revolution in Iran. The hostage crisis was a slap in the face of US power. A Swedish diplomat seconded to the caretaking of the US embassy was astonished by the treasure trove of documents which should have long forewarned the US to Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution. “They could have done much better,” he told this writer long ago. To redeem the lost power and prestige in Iran, the Carter administration stoked the jihad in Afghanistan. The jihad, it now transpires, predated the Soviet intervention of Christmas 1979, which may have been indeed precipitated by US meddling. The US experiment with religious extremism turned a full cycle with the 9/11 attacks carried out by a terrorist group sponsored by America in those early days. It didn’t stop the US trying the same tactic with Sunni terrorism in Syria, which has boomeranged with the greater and explosive onslaught of the Islamic State, whose ravages have primarily provoked the refugee exodus to Europe.

President Obama did a fine thing with the Iran nuclear deal. He should have done more to assuage Israeli and Saudi Arabian fears but the deal was good overall. It had a solid disruptive touch. He didn’t, however, capitalize on the deal. He could have used the “good offices” of Iran to get Assad to the negotiating table. It would have been impossible to exclude Assad ally Russia from this but at least the US would have had the first mover advantage with Iran. Instead, Obama stuck to the cliched position that Assad must go and never return as a preliminary to any negotiations and West European leaders mindlessly parroted the line.

In an evolving politico-military situation of great moment, you do not take extreme positions. If there was an Adolf Hitler to be replaced, it is understandable. Assad is hardly Hitler. If the United States had not invaded Iraq and set up rebels against Assad, Syria may not have descended into civil war. Keeping a country together is difficult. Breaking it up is easy, although the future expected peace is almost surely lost. Like it or not, Saddam Hussein kept together Iraq. He kept the Shia power of Iran in check. His loathing for the Arab sheikdoms also flavoured a nice balance. In similar vein, Bashar Assad kept Syria’s fractious population in rein. It was, at bottom, a forward-looking state. US meddling has destroyed this delicate balance.

Russia gave a long rope to the United States but when Obama was unforthcoming decided to act. Russia took advantage of Iran’s legitimization with the nuclear deal with the US though the advantage should have belonged to America. There is some discrepancy about Russian bombing whose primary targets may be the anti-Assad rebels. This is understandable. Russia is seeking to protect Assad when the US and Western Europe are determined to dislodge him. The UK now says it would accept Assad as a transition president if he promises not to contest elections whenever they are in a position to be held. Russia and Iran have flatly turned down this precondition.

What is the way out? Europe should realize that the Syrian civil war affects it because of proximity to the country and the refugee crisis more than it hurts America. It should be sensible and let Assad remain president without caveats till the elections. If he is quite as odious as the US and Europe makes him out to be, he will lose. What’s the problem? Excluding him can scarcely make the election credible. It is a shame that soi-disant liberal democracies like the UK are proposing elections without the participation of a key player. More to the point, such an election will prove flawed and hardly heal Syria.

What to do? The starting point is a US-Russia summit on Syria. This writer has proposed this before. At a minimum, the foreign military campaign in Syria must be closely coordinated with a joint determination of enemy and targets. All rebels opposing Assad must turn in their weapons or join the land war to the finish against the Islamic State. Close on the heels of a US-Russia summit, Western Europe, Iran and Syria may be involved in formal discussions together. Barack Obama should accept that Putin has a better military appreciation of the situation. It should not prevent Obama and the United States from working towards a durable peace in Syria involving all parties. A certain amount of give-and-take will see the thing through. America was better at these things in the early 1970s when it got Anwar Sadat on its side.