Syrian refugees scuffle with riot police at the Istanbul-Edirne highway on Saturday as they try to pass the Turkish-Greek border to reach Germany, in Edirne, Turkey. (Tolga Bozoglu/European Pressphoto Agency)
Opinion writer

Josh Rogin and Eli Lake report that retired Gen. John Allen is leaving as envoy responsible for the fight against the Islamic State:

The timing of Allen’s departure could not be worse for the Obama administration. The incoming Marine Corps Commandant, Lieutenant General Robert Neller, testified last month that the war is at a “stalemate.” Last week, the head of the U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, testified that of the 54 Syrian rebels trained and equipped by the U.S. military, only “4 or 5” were still in the fight. And now the Pentagon is investigating allegations by dozens of intelligence analysts that their reporting on the progress in the war effort was altered before being given to top officials.

U.S. officials familiar with Allen’s decision say he has been frustrated with White House micromanagement of the war and its failure to provide adequate resources to the fight. He unsuccessfully tried to convince the administration to allow U.S. tactical air control teams to deploy on the ground to help pick targets for air strikes in Iraq. Allen also tried several times to convince the White House to agree to Turkish demands for a civilian protection zone in Syria, to no avail. Nonetheless, administration officials stress that Allen’s decision to leave his post was motivated mainly by the health of his wife, who suffers from an auto-immune disorder.

If these sound like complaints we have heard from former secretaries of defense Robert Gates and Leon Panetta and even former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, you are right. The president’s fundamental unwillingness to assert U.S. power, either by making a robust effort in Iraq or by hitting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is allowing chaos to increase and eroding our influence in the region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has noticed it. The Wall Street Journal reports: “Russian forces appear to be expanding their military presence in Syria through the development of two additional bases, according to new satellite imagery . . . .The expansion near the Mediterranean coast is the latest sign Russia is preparing to inject its military forces into the country’s 4½-year war, creating new challenges for the U.S.-led coalition trying to force President Bashar al-Assad from power and defeat Islamic State militants.” President Obama either refuses to see or does not care that American fecklessness encourages aggressive foes.

Iran has noticed it. Testifying today, retired Gen. David Petraeus forcefully criticized the Iran deal. As opponents of the deal have argued, Petraeus explained that it would “increase considerably the resources available for the Iranian regime to pursue maligned activities and in the longer term, as constraints imposed by the agreement expire, the risk of Iranian proliferation will increase. The key question going forward is what will be the relationship of the United States to Iranian power? Will we seek to counter it, or to accommodate it?” (The answer is obvious: We are presently capitulating to the regime.) This is the critical argument made by opponents, namely that this deal is worse than no deal specifically because it aids and abets Iran’s aggression and demoralizes allies. He added, “We should understand that the most immediate test for the credibility of our policy will be what we do in Iraq and Syria. The outcome in those countries will be the basis for the judgments of friend and foe alike that our steadfastness and competence in thwarting ISIS and Iran’s request for hegemony.”

In prepared remarks, he blasts the entire concept of leading from behind:

And, it is in the Middle East today where the rules-based international order—the foundation of American security and prosperity since the end of World War II—is most in danger of coming apart at the seams. International peace and security do not require the United States to solve every crisis or to intervene in every conflict. But if America is ineffective or absent in the face of the most egregious violations of the most basic principles of the international order that we have championed, our commitment to that order is inevitably questioned… and further challenges to it are invited.

In short, we allow events to spin out of control and Russian forces literally move in to fill the void while Iran sees a desperate, weak president and picks his pocket at the bargaining table. Events are likely to be much more dire by January 2017, but in the short run, Petraeus urges the administration to step up its presence, calling the current effort “inadequate.” He recommends we increase support for Iraq’s military, Sunni tribes and Kurdish fighters and explore positioning American air controllers with Iraqi forces to improve targeting. As for Syria, like many independent critics of the administration, he encourages the administration to set up “safe zones where moderate Sunni forces could be supported, additional forces could be trained, internally displaced persons could find refuge and the opposition could organize.” He specifically rejects Obama’s policy of fighting only jihadists, not Assad. (“The central problem in Syria is that Sunni Arabs will not be willing partners against the Islamic State unless we commit to protect them and the broader Syrian population against all enemies, not just ISIS. That means protecting them from the unrestricted warfare being waged against them by Bashar al Assad—especially by his air force and its use of barrel bombs.”)

The question for voters in 2016 will be, in part, who is best able to counter the myriad conflicts and threats emanating from U.S. weakness. Vice President Joe Biden, who apparently fully supported Obama’s non-engagement in the Middle East as well as Russian reset, would be precisely the wrong person to get us and our allies out of the mess. Hillary Clinton, who cheered off-loading the Syrian WMD (weapons of mass destruction) problem to Russia, is equally culpable despite her reported attempts (how strenuous, we don’t know) to turn around a morally and geopolitically disastrous Syria policy. On the GOP side, Donald Trump shares Obama’s approach to abdicating a U.S. role in favor of ongoing genocide, Russian advances and Iranian aggression. Our next president surely shouldn’t be someone who believed we had no national security interest in Syria and opposed a military strike to enforce the red line, as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) does.

Voters should look for the candidate who is candid about the mess in which we find ourselves, can convey the enormity of the problem, is willing to spend resources to rebuild our military, is equipped to sift through the disagreeable options and is as  prepared as George W. Bush was with the Iraq surge to defy public opinion and, if need be, his own party to rescue American credibility. We’ve seen what the world looks like without a credible U.S. president. It’s not pretty and is likely to get worse.