President Barack Obama has promised to recognize the Syrian opposition. Not a moment too soon, after 21 months of carnage in Syria and American dallying while the killing took place. Some insist that recognition is too little, too late. The opposition owes nothing to outsiders, having faced butchery without outside assistance.
There was a time when it wouldn’t have taken nearly two years for an American president to side with an initially unarmed population rising up against a tyrant, especially one hostile to the United States and responsible for the death of Americans. Other leaders than Obama might have seen the obvious advantages in bringing down a Syrian regime that has been instrumental in sustaining the influence of America’s prime regional rival, Iran, in the Levant. A less diffident administration would have played a more active role in organizing the Syrian opposition, just as the Iranians and Russians have been at the heart of efforts to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad afloat.
The thing is that Obama tends to focus on the problem before venturing to find solutions to it. The president has little strategic foresight. His administration first thought that the revolt against Assad might be used to bring his regime back to the negotiating table with Israel. Then it claimed to want to avoid exacerbating the fighting in Syria. It later came to see the uprising through a faulty prism from the past, namely Afghanistan, and worried that foreign jihadists would transform the country into a rallying point for their agendas.
How foolish that was. As if the prolonged void in Syria would not attract jihadists anyway; as if standing and watching the slaughter and failing to do anything about it would not encourage the jihadists to profit from American indifference and turn this against the Americans. Had Washington made an effort to openly bolster the fractured opposition forces and impose unity on them, they would have been far better able to curb the extremists while handing a decisive advantage to the vast majority of Syrians who have no yearning whatsoever to see Muslim emirates in their midst.
The Obama administration has designated Jabhat al-Nusra, which is allegedly close to Al-Qaeda, as a foreign terrorist organization. That is understandable, but once again it confuses the American message with a Syrian people that now has a minute reservoir of consideration for the U.S. government. To them it seems that whenever Obama gives something to Syria, he also takes something away. Jabhat al-Nusra may worry those in Washington, as it does many in Syria. But it has also been successful in combating the ferocity of the Syrian regime, which the U.S. has done nothing to neutralize in practical terms.
Obama’s continued ambiguity over Syria is disconcerting. He favors a negotiated settlement, but feels that Assad must leave office as a precondition for this. The Syrian opposition agrees with the second objective, but does not trust the implications of the first. Negotiations, by their very definition, invite compromise, and today Assad’s foes have no incentive to compromise with members of his regime responsible for the abominable crimes of the past year.
But Obama is correct in one regard. A negotiated settlement is far more preferable than war until the bitter end, which would alarm Syria’s minorities and possibly carry Syria into a prolonged and debilitating vacuum. Whether the opposition likes it or not, it has no alternative but to find common ground with the Alawites to pave the way for a consensus in postwar Syria. This will involve swallowing a bitter pill in some cases, though the worst criminals need not escape punishment. Communal reconciliation alone can save Syria from the worst consequences of its ongoing civil war.
The problem is that the U.S. has not pushed hard enough for a desirable endgame in Syria. It has not done much to prevent certain Arab countries from arming groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, nor has it outlined what it views as an ideal political solution, around which it can build international concord. In effect, Obama has not played the role of superpower, even as the U.S. has failed to harmonize the contradictory interests of its regional allies. No wonder the Syrians are angry. They see no clear plan from Obama, and the Americans today enjoy too little credibility among Syrians for the administration to impose on them conditions that they find unpleasant.
And yet the U.S. must rebuild its relationship with Syrians. This will be important for many reasons: to isolate the jihadists; to have a say in likely future talks between a post-Assad Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights; and to block Iran out of the country, and in that way contain it regionally. With some attention, this is achievable.
Many years ago, Patrick Seale wrote an excellent book titled “The Struggle for Syria,” in which he outlined how the country had become a valued prize in the regional rivalry between Iraq and Egypt. Things have changed since that time, but not Syria’s centrality in the Middle East. If Barack Obama plans to have a policy toward the region, then he must define a cohesive policy toward Syria. The president is not there yet. Such a lack of enthusiasm is incomprehensible at a time of great opportunity in the Arab world.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.