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.