For almost a year, America’s allies in the Middle East and Western Europe have believed it was only Obama’s reelection campaign that held the president back from employing more forceful means to topple Bashar al-Assad. After all, ending the bloodshed that has killed over 40,000 people has been the Obama administration’s stated objective since the American president demanded that the Syrian dictator step down in August 2011.
It could only be domestic politics, thought our allies, that prevented Washington from taking the lead on Syria. Surely the Nobel Peace laureate in the White House felt the depths of the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in the heart of the Levant and recognized the strategic opportunity of eliminating Iran’s key Arab ally. Things will change, our allies assumed, after that first week in November. But those allies, to say nothing of the Syrian opposition that Assad has bled for nearly two years, are likely to be disappointed.
The reality is that from the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011 until the present the White House has been consistent in its message: The United States is not going to lead on Syria, and that won’t change after elections. By some accounts, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been arguing for a more forward-leaning policy on Syria, but she is on her way out. The next Secretary of State is likely to be Susan Rice, who has so far distinguished herself on Syria by pouting at the U.N. that the Russians, one of Assad’s lifelines, are protecting their ally. The other candidate for the top job at Foggy Bottom is longtime Assad advocate Sen. John Kerry.
Outside of senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman, retiring in January, there has been little enthusiasm on Capitol Hill for moving more forcefully against Assad. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney hardly made it an issue. Presumably, this is because everyone consults the same polls that show the electorate has little taste for any sort of foreign adventure, especially in the Middle East. Obama will therefore be the president of extrication from the region, lowering America’s profile, rather than advancing vital U.S. interests.
For almost two years, allies have mistaken the White House’s excuses, believing that alibis for inaction were advice. The administration complained that the opposition was too divided. But last week when the fractious Syrian National Council gave way to a united National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, there was no change in U.S. policy. The State Department promised “nonlethal” assistance, just as it had with previous opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army.
The White House explains that it is loath to provide the rebels with weapons because of the presence of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist units among the armed opposition. But that is an outcome the administration could have anticipated when it disdained arming the Free Syrian Army and left the task to our Gulf allies instead. Qatar has backed Muslim Brotherhood figures everywhere throughout the Arab Spring, and Salafists, including al Qaeda and al Qaeda affiliates, have served as Saudi assets for the last 40 years. The lesson couldn’t be clearer: The absence of American leadership leaves a vacuum that is filled by those whose actions are often inimical to American interests.
Last week British Prime Minister David Cameron tried to spur on the White House by suggesting he might be willing to arm the rebels. As he surely knows, and as the NATO-led coalition in Libya to bring down Qaddafi made clear, Europe is incapable, even if willing, of doing the heavy lifting. Cameron wants the Americans in front, but if he’s not careful he’ll only manage to drag himself into the middle of a firefight with the Syrians, Iranians, and Russians lined up against him.
Cameron might well consult with the Turks, an ally that has paid a steep price for misreading the White House. Early in the uprising, Obama farmed his Syria policy out to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and thereby hung an albatross around the neck of the world leader to whom he is reportedly closest. Erdogan walked point for the administration, hosting Syrian refugees, including fighters, and calling out Assad at every turn. And yet when the Syrians shot down a Turkish jet, the White House backed Damascus’s story, not Ankara’s. Assad’s artillery fire across the border merely underlined the fact that without American support, Erdogan was nothing but talk.
But perhaps it wasn’t until last week that the horror fully hit home for Erdogan. Some observers wondered if the Patriot missile battery that Turkey and NATO discussed employing on the Turkish border was to create the no-fly zone for which Ankara has long lobbied. No, explained a State Department spokesman, it is to protect the Turks in the event that Assad turns his chemical weapons arsenal against them.
The Syrian uprising has left hundreds of thousands looking for refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, further destabilizing the Hashemite kingdom, an American ally facing its own domestic strife. Last week, there was an exchange on Syria’s Golan Heights border with Israel, a strange move given that Assad surely understands Israel is not Turkey. If he or the Iranians want to find out whether the Obama administration will restrain the Israelis, Jerusalem’s campaign against Hamas, Operation Pillar of Defense, has shown otherwise. Perhaps Assad was testing to see whether he might change the conversation from his sectarian slaughter to the Arab-Israel conflict, but it is probably too late for that. He has killed tens of thousands of Sunnis, which is to say even were he to enter what might well be a suicidal war with Israel, he could hardly count on the same sort of Arab (i.e., Sunni) support he might have had before the uprising against him started. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan all want him gone.
The most dispiriting news from the Middle East last week may be how many political officials and activists throughout the region have accused Israel of throwing a lifeline to Assad with the campaign against Hamas. According to former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, now living in exile, “The occurrence of the attack simultaneously with the ongoing Syrian revolution poses questions over its timing and is a sign of the clear intentions to thwart the revolt as much as possible.”
A more rational understanding of Israel’s campaign would recognize that the Israelis and the Syrian rebels, as well as Lebanon’s pro-democracy movement, share the same adversaries—Iran and its allies and proxies, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Instead, Hariri and others continue to see Israel’s conflict in the narrow focus that the Syrian regime and other Arab despots have designed in order to repress their own internal conflicts for decades. Never mind what we’re doing to you: The suppression of human rights, the torture, rape, and murder of you and your loved ones, is all meant to protect the nation from the Zionists and their American masters. Fellow Arabs who wish the Syrian uprising well should understand that the goal must be for Syrians to have what Israelis have: a government that protects, and is accountable to, its citizens.
And yet Hariri and the rest might be forgiven if the world seems upside down right now. For all of our allies are groping to understand the unfathomable prospect that the White House really is out of the picture.