Waiting for Obama

By Saddy, Fehmy | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2013 | Go to article overview

Waiting for Obama


Saddy, Fehmy, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Now that President Barack Obama has been re-elected for a second term and the Syrian opposition has been restructured along U.S. conditions to include other opposition factions and elected a former preacher at Omayyad Mosque in Damascus to lead their revolution, the Syrians hope to see at long last the beginning of the end of their predicament. The Arab League has endorsed the enlarged opposition, and the Gulf states, Turkey, France and the UK have recognized it as the sole representative of the Syrian people. The wait finally ended for President Obama to determine the next step. When he did, he offered a guarded support of the new opposition, then departed for Asia.

Meanwhile, the carnage in Syria continues. The death toll has become a matter of emotionless statistics: 39,000 killed-give or take a few thousand. According to the U.N., several hundred thousand Syrian refugees-give or take a few hundred thousand because, understandably, it cannot account for everybody-have fled to neighboring countries. The U.N. estimates the number of internally displaced refugees, some of them displaced more than once, at having reached four million. They must endure the biting cold as they enter a second winter in a row. The World Food Program, which provides food to the refugees, cites a shortage of funding. On the bright side, the U.S. has announced a donation of $35 million to pay for food for those wretched-of-the-earth Syrians. A great power, of course, deserves recognition for its noblesse oblige.

One of Washington's conditions is that the opposition should not engage in negotiations with the Assad regime. Yet U.S. support remains confined to moral and humanitarian gestures, not military reinforcement. Meanwhile, the balance of forces on the ground remains in favor of the brutal Syrian regime, which has a huge arsenal of armor, fighter planes and sophisticated missile systems assembled over many years to fight a conventional war. The U.S. and its Western allies, particularly Israel and Turkey, also recognize that there is a real possibility that chemical weapons would be used by the Syrian regime as a last resort.

In addition, the principal backers of the regime, Russia and Iran in particular-not to mention the tacit backing of Iraq, Algeria and Hezbollah-have shown no sign of wavering in their support, and are still calling for negotiations as the only viable approach for an orderly transition to a new political order that meets the aspirations of all Syrians. In this respect, they have the support of the United Nations and the Arab League and their joint emissary, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is committed to this approach and whose mission is endorsed by China.

Against this background, U.S. policy remains ambivalent and has given no indication beyond its rhetoric of how to end the Syrian carnage. Washington is unwilling to provide military support at a time when it is trying to wind down U.S involvement in Afghanistan and it does not, and cannot, afford a new war in the Middle East, particularly one that would involve confrontation with Russia on its turf.

The U.S. relied on pragmatism, the diplomatic approach for which it is known, to disengage from Vietnam and other prior conflicts. It conducted secret negotiations with the Viet Cong in Paris and, more recently, sought negotiations with the Taliban in its search for an exit from Afghanistan. Whenever the cost of a conflict outweighs its benefits, Washington has never hesitated to negotiate. Therefore, one must wonder why the U.S. does not exercise pragmatism in the context of the Syrian conflict, when the situation on the ground and political actors in the region and beyond favor a political solution? …

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