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Tony Badran

Obama’s detachment policy on Syria

On Monday, the editor of the pan-Arab Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Tariq al-Homayed, penned a column that delivered a scathing critique of the Obama administration’s Syria policy. The title of the piece said it all: “Obama is the problem, not just Russia.” While one can’t say for sure, it’s hard to read Homayed’s editorial as anything other than an indicator of Riyadh’s exasperation with Washington’s dithering as the Syrian uprising marks its first year anniversary.
 
The Saudis’ frustration with the Obama administration’s approach was already evident at the “Friends of Syria” gathering in Tunis last month, when Foreign Minister Saud al-Faysal left the meeting, citing lack of serious action. It was then that al-Faysal publicly went against the administration’s declared policy, calling the arming of the Syrian opposition “an excellent idea.” The Qataris, too, shared the Saudis’ desire for more robust action, including direct support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
 
However, if that’s the case, then why did Riyadh and Doha agree to yet another futile initiative with the Russians, which did nothing but buy more time for Assad to escalate his military campaign? In addition, reports continue to suggest that the Saudis and Qataris remain far from aggressively supplying the FSA with weapons. To answer these questions, one must again turn to Washington.
 
Last week, an anonymous administration official disclosed that a “decision has been made at the next Friends of Syria meeting to not oppose any proposals to arm the FSA and we’re not going to publicly or privately message on that,” the official said. “We’re not going to publicly or privately tell the Friends of Syria not to do this.”
 
The problem, of course, is that the administration did continue to message publicly against any lethal support to the FSA, and against any military options more broadly. As late as this Tuesday, the White House spokesman was still repeating the familiar mantra: “It is certainly our position that providing arms is not a move that we’re considering right now because we believe it could heighten and prolong the violence in Syria… So it is our position that we do not want to contribute to the further militarization of Syria because that could lead down a very dangerous road.”
 
In addition to administration officials making the same arguments in testimonies before Congress, press briefings were organized by intelligence officials with the sole aim of trashing the notion of arming the FSA. Unnamed US officials warned of al-Qaeda’s supposed infiltration of the revolution, and exaggerated to a laughable extent the capabilities of the Assad regime in order to counter any push for military action, which some influential voices in Congress had begun voicing.
 
At the same time, the US renewed its efforts to engage Russia at the Security Council, introducing a new draft resolution, which, according to one leaked version, calls for a dialogue between the regime and the opposition, thereby making a remarkable concession to Moscow, tantamount to reversing the declared US policy of regime change.
 
Despite the embarrassing fiasco of the Kofi Annan mission to Syria, and the predictable lack of any progress with the Russians, President Obama yesterday still doubled down on this failed approach. “[F]or us to provide strong support to Kofi Annan, to continue to talk to the Russians, the Chinese and others… that’s the most important work that we can do right now.”
 
As a result, it’s not hard to see why the Saudis and Qataris felt forced to go through Russia one more time. It was the expressed wish of the President of the United States. A careful rereading of the statement made by the anonymous official to ForeignPolicy.com shows that this was the message communicated to US allies.
 
The official noted that the US would take the passive attitude toward arming the FSA “at the next Friends of Syria meeting,” which will take place early next month. In other words, the Obama administration opted to waste a full month banging on the Kremlin’s door, yet again, as Bashar al-Assad escalated his military campaign in Homs, Idlib and Daraa.
 
The administration has been criticized repeatedly for not asserting leadership when it came to Syria. In reality, however, the administration did very much push its preferences on its regional allies. Its public messaging and diplomatic activity left no doubt that it continued to oppose any military aid to the FSA and that it insisted on going through Moscow one more time, regardless of the time this would buy Assad.
 
So, although the official said that the administration was not going to “publicly or privately” tell allies not to arm the FSA, as a matter of fact, Washington has been quite verbose these last three weeks, and its message to regional allies, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, against arming the opposition, has been unmistakable. After all, the US Secretary of State herself twice said that arming the Syrian opposition might be like sending weapons to Al-Qaeda.
 
It’s clear that President Obama, who’s running on a policy of extrication from the region, sees that opening the door to military aid risks drawing the US in. Despite the increased pressure to move in that direction, the president is determined to keep the US out of the game.
 
This was not lost on Al-Sharq Al-Awsat’s Homayed. “[I]t is clear that Obama is not concerned with the security of the region… rather [he] is preoccupied with his re-election bid,” he wrote in his column.
 
The Saudis may not yet have gone as far as Senator John McCain, who the other day called the administration’s policy “disgraceful and shameful.” However, with their media now openly labeling President Obama as part of the problem alongside Assad’s Russian allies, they’re hardly being subtle.
 
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

  • Eliyahu

    Nsc is right. The Arabs & most or many of their sympathizers in the West suffer from political paranoia.Not only towards the Jews, towards Israel, but towards whoever seems a threat, whether this is reality or not. Israel has limited influence on the Washington administration. The State Dept & CIA & National Security Advisor are all entrenched bureaucracies not subject to democratic control. And they have long term policies. Yes, Israel did not want Mubarak to fall and we see that Egypt would have been better off if he had not fallen as he did. Israel does oppose the Assad regime for several reasons. One obvious reason is that Syria is allied to Iran and Syria [= the Assad regime] is Iran's pipeline to Lebanon for supplying the Hizbullah. Another reason is the Assad regime's vicious Judeophobic lies that have apparently succeeded in influencing both supporters and opponents of the Assad regime to hate Israel and Jews and look for Israel's hand behind everything that they don't like.

    March 20, 2012

  • Beiruti

    @nsc, Mubarak going down in Egypt was not a preference of anyone, Israel, the US, KSA, no one. There was a spontaneous Egyptian uprising that came on so swiftly that if the US did not cut Mubarak loose when we did, the US Embassy in Cairo would have been overrun and the post abandoned. Given that choice, the US cut Mubarak loose, knowing that the regime of the Free Officers Movement would survive and it has survived. With this new uncertainty created on Israel's southern border, yes, Israel does not want uncertainty created on its northern border as well since this may invite adventurism such as Israel has not seen in 40 years. Rami Khouri spoke the truth. He laid it on the line. The Assad Regime provides for Israeli security and if it goes down, then "no one will know security". We all know what he was saying. Playing on Israeli fears knowing that Israel has the American's ear. And remember, Israel has more impact on Congress than on the President.

    March 19, 2012

  • Shinar

    I agree with this, and when Russia seem to turn on Assad, they came with Annan to further delay action This is horrible delay! The killing field in Syria can stop with few raids on Tanks, like was the case in Bosnia, where delay killed thousands too Obama doing this I think to appease Iran so it would not close Hormoz for Oil flow and affect his election. Clinton is a loser since this was her chance to show she was not a secretary of State who achieved Nothing last 4

    March 19, 2012

  • nsc

    So according to Beiruti et. al., if the US does something bad it's because Israel controls them." If Israel controlled US policy, everything Obama has done for the last three years would have been completely different. Israel knew the peace talks were futile, since Abbas neither wanted nor could sign a deal, any deal; yet they were dragged into the charade, and badgered to make concessions which they knew would only lead to more demands for more concessions, but would never lead to peace or even a single Palestinian concession in return. And while Israel may have had a slight preference for Assad to survive, instead of what was likely to follow, they had a real strong preference for Mubarak to survive, since the peace treaty with Egypt depended on him. So, did they control Obama and make him support Mubarak? Did they? You tell me. This "it's all the fault of the Joooos" thinking is paranoid craziness. You want to know why the Mideast is such a mess, it's because people think like th

    March 18, 2012

  • Hep

    "Israel has invested 40 years in the Assad Regime and does not want to lose the investment – Beiruti" –---- You are right but in a different sense. The article in the link below deals with the 40+ years of history that led to the unprecedented events unfolding now and how Tel Aviv and Riyadh have once again joined hands in modern day to eliminate Syrian Resistance once and for all…... "Kiss Of ‘Democratic’ Death: Israel’s Plot To Take Down Syria" By Jonathan Azaziah - ...

    March 16, 2012

  • tg

    Best case scenario is for Assad and muslim brotherhood to keep killing each other. This author. Obama is playing this right.

    March 16, 2012

  • Mick

    I agree with Beiruti. I believe the Israeli's are secretly presuring the U.S. admisistration to keep Assad in power. American's Mideast policy is and aways has been dictated by Israel. They want the Syrian army to crumble or to the very least significantly weaked to the extent that Israel would no longer have to worry about it's northern neigbour, even through the Assad's were never an enemy of Israel to begin with. In regards to the Wests and especially the U.S. reluctance, to arming the FSA. You wouldn't have to look any further then the Lebanese army. The U.S. arms the Lebanese army with the most outdated weaponry in it's possession, which is never any match to Israels. They are afraid that if they offer sophisticated weapons to the FSA, somehow they believe these weapons will be used one day against Israel.

    March 16, 2012

  • Hep

    What the West wants from Syria is not democracy but the overthrow of the regime so as to eliminate Iran's influence over Syria….. ---- WEST WANTS ASSAD OUT, DEMOCRACY OR NOT -- ...

    March 16, 2012

  • Roni David

    Mr Badran misses Bush so much ! It takes a brainless Bush to get involved in Syria at this point... Indeed, choosing not to act is an act in itself and Assad outsmarted everyone and managed well so far. Admit it Mr Badran and stop beating your president for being reasonable... It is not about elections and this is his position... The matter is beyond simple academic calculation and you do not seem to care about lives in Syria, just like the Assad regime. Israel today cannot decide for much because they cannot predict the outcome of any event around them. We have observed their behavior over the last year and Nasrallah is right... Their compass is too disoriented by the region and its uprising, they don't know who is their ally anymore. They feel so powerless today that the only thing Mr Natanyahu did after his useless visit to the US, was to bomb Gaza ! An act of frustration because Obama closed the door again in his face. So Obama is acting and your title is wrong...

    March 16, 2012

  • Ghiath of Damascus

    Beiruti hit the nail on the head. The US and all western countries want Assad to survive for one reason only; protecting the interest of Israel. That is why Alan Jupe announced today that he is against arming the Free Syrian Army, claiming that doing so would increase violence and make the situation worse. The western governments apparently do not learn the lessons of history. God-willing the Syrian people will prevail with the help and support of the Arab and Muslim people around the world. History will mention with disgrace the stand of the US and its allies who are partners in the crimes committed by Assad and his murderous mobs.

    March 16, 2012

  • Charles

    You write as if American opinion is the only one that matters and that tacit American dissent is enough to stop policy makers in other countries from even thinking about other solutions. Qatar, Britain, and France were all involved in Libya - providing weapons, training, and advice - months before the Obama administration made a decision. Secretary Gates, as well as Secretary Clinton and other US grandees, publicly and loudly opposed action in Libya to international dismay, and yet initiatives moved along in other capitals and the US eventually came around. Why you think this can't happen again, I don't know? If the Saudis and Qataris are so upset, instead of sitting on their hands, they should get the Arab League to support full condemnation of Assad. If they can't even do that, the time for American involvement will need to wait much longer.

    March 15, 2012

  • Beiruti

    To choose not to act, is to act. The Obama Administration has a policy on the Syrian Uprising and it pursues it, not passively, but quite aggressively. Its policy is that the Assad Regime should survive the uprising. It is a policy born of Israeli preference for Assad rather than the alternative. Israel has invested 40 years in the Assad Regime and does not want to lose the investment. Who holds the stick in the wheel of justice? Well its an American glove, but with an Israeli hand in it.

    March 15, 2012