President Barack Obama, stung by criticism of his foreign policy in general and on Syria in particular, has promised more aid to moderate rebels but added a somber note of caution – there is “no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon.”
The unspoken reason: The U.S. is unwilling to provide weapons that could tilt the military balance.
Obama spoke about Syria, without once mentioning President Bashar Assad, in a speech his aides and most of the U.S. media had flagged as the blueprint of a new foreign policy for the remainder of his presidency. But the speech, the result of weeks of discussion by Obama’s closest aides, made one wonder how the new foreign policy differed from the old foreign policy. Old wine in new bottles?
Obama campaigned for his second term on a platform of nation-building at home, winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan he inherited from George W. Bush, and avoiding foreign entanglements. It was a winning combination, in sync with the popular mood at the time.
Judging from a series of polls since Obama’s 2012 electoral victory, this is still the foreign policy most Americans prefer. Paradoxically, that approach to America’s role in the world is now drawing low marks. While Americans want their country to play a less active role on the world stage, they also want their president to be seen as the world’s leader.
In his foreign policy speech on May 28 at the U.S. military academy at West Point, Obama went to great lengths to counter criticism, largely from the political right, that he is an indecisive leader whose foreign policy makes the U.S. look weak. Such charges gained currency with Obama’s handling of the civil war in Syria, where the death toll now has climbed past 160,000 and the government has been gaining the upper hand against opponents who range from pro-democracy moderates to Al-Qaeda affiliates.
At West Point, Obama called Syria “a critical focus” of a planned $5 billion effort to support “new counterterrorism partnerships ... which will allow us to train, build capacity and facilitate partners on the front lines” in Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Mali. He added: “As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers [in Syria], no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon.”
Obstacles to ending the bloodletting include the Syrian government’s allies, whose role in the conflict went unmentioned in Obama’s speech. Russia has kept up weapons deliveries, China is a major trading partner, Iran provides arms, training and cash, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah sent hundreds of fighters to Syria to fight alongside Assad’s forces.
A day before the much-heralded speech, unnamed administration officials denied a report in the newspaper Al-Hayat that the White House had dropped its long-standing opposition to supplying Man-Portable Air Defense Systems to Syrian rebels. Military experts say portable surface-to-air missiles could tilt the military balance in Syria, much as U.S.-supplied Stinger anti-aircraft missiles gave an edge to anti-Soviet mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the early 1980s.
What the Stingers did to Soviet helicopter gunships, MANPADS could do to the Syrian government helicopters that drop barrel bombs on rebel strongholds in densely populated areas, inevitably killing large numbers of civilians. Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, has been particularly hard hit. The Obama administration has vetoed MANPADS for Syria for fear they could fall into the hands of extremists and could be used to down civilian airliners. Obama has also taken off the table the option of cyberattacks against the Syrian government, another weapon experts say could change the military equation, for fear of retaliation. The U.S., biggest user of the Internet, is vulnerable to counterstrikes from hackers.
Instead, Obama plans to step up an existing program to train moderate rebels or, as he put it, “those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators.” Conspicuously absent in the president’s remark was any direct mention of Assad, for whose resignation he first called in August 2011, a demand he repeated several times since then.
The omission sparked some speculation in the foreign affairs community. Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a commentary on Obama’s speech that “senior administration officials tell me that Obama has been modifying his objective and is now prepared to work with Assad, to some degree, along with moderate rebels, against what the White House finally has come to see as the real and major threat – the jihadists.”
Obama’s speech coincided with final preparations in Syria for presidential elections scheduled for next week.
Their outcome is not in doubt: Assad is running against two little-known contenders. The last time he stood for elections, he garnered 97.6 percent of the vote as the only candidate, an impressive result even by the standards of such dictatorships as North Korea.
Syrian presidents serve seven-year terms. Whether Assad will be able to hold onto power in until 2021 is open to doubt.
But in Washington, where the imminent fall of the Assad regime was taken for granted two years ago, some may begin to wonder before long whether the Syrian strongman might outlast Obama. He leaves office in January 2017.
Bernd Debusmann is a former World Affairs columnist for Reuters. This article was written exclusively for The Daily Star.