Middle East

Obama’s Syrian dilemma

Obama boards Air Force One in Cambodia, on an Asian trip that wasn't affected by the latest Middle East crisis. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad

In his first term in office, U.S. President Barack Obama’s policy on Syria blended wishful thinking and great caution. The president and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, were late in recognizing the nature of the Damascus regime and the danger of Syria turning into a killing field.

As Obama begins his second term, what are the prospects of more effective policies?

The first term’s slow pace of coming to terms with reality is best illustrated with a timeline: It took Clinton 106 days and more than 1,300 dead pro-democracy demonstrators to change her description of Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, from “reformer” to “a leader who has lost legitimacy.” It took another 37 days and 700 dead for Obama to call on Assad to step down. That was on Aug. 18, 2011.

Obama repeated that call eight months later, by which time what had begun as peaceful anti-government demonstrations had turned into civil war and the body count stood at around 10,000. Senior U.S. administration officials kept saying Assad’s days were numbered and one described the Syrian leader as a “dead man walking.”

Fast forward to Nov. 14 and Obama’s first news conference after his re-election.

He was asked what it would take for the United States to recognize a newly formed umbrella group for the fractured political opposition and at what point Washington would consider arming the rebels fighting the Assad government.

The president’s answers pointed to a second-term approach not much different from the first.

On the new group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, he said he considered them legitimate representatives of the Syrian people but “we’re not prepared to recognize them as some sort of government in exile.” (France, Turkey and six Arab Gulf countries did). On arms for the rebels: “One of the things we have to be on guard about ... is that we’re not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks who would do Americans harm or do Israelis harm or otherwise engage in actions that are detrimental to our national security.”

There is a dilemma in this approach to arms supplies. Thoroughly vetting potential recipients is a time-consuming process, involving CIA officers in Jordan and Turkey and leaders of the new National Coalition, which is meant to be the main clearing house for weapons. To what extent the coalition can exert authority over the dozens of disparate rebel militias fighting inside Syria will largely depend on the speed and quantity of weapons supplies.

Hopes for a unified military command responding to the political leaders of the National Coalition, which will be based in Cairo, have already been dimmed by an online video issued by 13 radical Islamic factions who rejected “any foreign plan from coalitions and councils imposed on those of us inside.” Instead, they said, they wanted to establish “a just Islamic state.”

That is the stuff of nightmares in Washington and other Western capitals. The state the Islamists visualize is about as far as you can get from the “democratic, inclusive and moderate” Syria for which Obama says his administration is pushing. But not even the most vocal advocates of direct American military aid, such as Senator John McCain, talk of an invasion to impose democracy and moderation.

What complicates the search for an end to what has turned into one of the worst humanitarian crises in Middle Eastern history – almost 40,000 dead, 200,000 refugees, 1.5 million internally displaced – is what one might call Middle East crisis fatigue.

It makes no headlines and is not a matter of public discussion.

But it comes through in the online comments under news stories on trouble in the region. The theme often is “Why should we get involved? Let them sort it out themselves.” Middle East fatigue also shone through in a remark the New York Times attributed to an anonymous top Obama aide the day the president left for a trip to Asia that coincided with yet another explosion of Israeli-Palestinian violence over Gaza.

“We never considered scrapping the trip. It’s the difference between keeping focused on what’s important in the long term and the urgent crisis du jour, which will always be there.”

This is not the kind of language Obama would use but it reflects a feeling among a good many Americans that the perpetual problems of the Middle East often distract from other priorities.

As it happened, the Middle East followed Obama to far-away Cambodia, from where he telephoned Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss a cease-fire. Obama then sent Clinton to Jerusalem.

Gaza will probably be settled, until the next outbreak, long before the guns fall silent in Syria. After a string of over-optimistic predictions about the fall of Syria’s “dead man walking,” it’s hard to find anyone in Washington’s foreign policy establishment who would hazard a guess on the end of the Syrian bloodshed. As to the eventual outcome, one expert on civil war violence warns of genocide – of the Alawite minority who make up the core of Assad’s military and security forces.

Under the headline The World’s Next Genocide, Simon Adams, the head of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P for short), wrote in a Nov. 16 op-ed in the New York Times: “For more than a year, Mr. Assad’s government has been committing crimes against humanity in Syria. As it fights for survival on the streets of Aleppo and Damascus, the risk of unrestrained reprisals against Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect and Syria’s other religious minorities is growing every day.

“A few months ago, talk of possible massacres of Alawites ... seemed like government propaganda. Now, it’s a real possibility.”

Bernd Debusmann is a Former Reuters world affairs columnist. This article was written exclusively for The Daily Star

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 22, 2012, on page 8.




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