If the Syrian regime ordered a chemical weapons attack against civilians in areas east of Damascus this week, it did so with remarkable impudence, given the presence in Syria of a United Nations team investigating the previous use of such weapons.
Or perhaps President Bashar al-Assad is just a good reader of the international community, believing he can commit such crimes and wag his middle finger at his foes, without any fear of serious retaliation. If so, he may be correct. Nothing Western countries, above all the United States, have done on Syria should frighten Assad.
But Assad’s fatal flaw is that he tends to overplay his hand. There is one thing that he cannot dismiss completely: that at some point the Obama administration will grasp the devastating impact of the fact that it has undermined, in just five years, the central role the United States played in the Middle East for over six decades, and that this will lead it to respond militarily in Syria.
Already many Arab states are behaving as if they care little what the United States says or does. The Egyptian military has virtually ignored American counsel about how to deal with the aftermath of President Mohammed Morsi’s ouster. The army has committed several massacres but still sees the Obama administration wrestling with whether to describe what happened on June 30 as a “coup.”
And the challenges to American power are becoming even sharper. With many in Washington calling on President Barack Obama to cut off aid to Egypt because of its army’s human rights violations, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have offered the interim Egyptian government some $12 billion in aid, and have taken other measures to bolster the military. This has effectively undermined American leverage over Egypt – in the form of the $1.5 billion in direct military and economic grants provided by the United States annually, as well as $1.3 billion from the European Union.
Last Friday, in patent defiance of the United States, King Abdullah declared on television, “The kingdom stands with Egypt and against all those who try to interfere with its domestic affairs.” Even blunter were the remarks of Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the foreign minister, who stated, “Concerning those who announced stopping their assistance to Egypt or threatening to stop them, the Arab and Islamic nation is rich with its people and capabilities and will lend a helping hand.”
Though the Obama administration has pushed for the Saudis to take the lead in assisting the Syrian opposition, it is obvious that the kingdom is profoundly dissatisfied with American disengagement from the region. The Saudis worry most about Iranian power, but see that everywhere the Iranians are making gains – Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain – Washington has avoided getting involved.
When Prince Bandar bin Sultan traveled to Moscow recently to meet with President Vladimir Putin, one message was very plain: When you want to do business in Syria and the Middle East these days, it’s best to talk to the person in the Kremlin not the White House.
It is unlikely, as some have suggested, that Bandar visited Moscow on behalf of the Americans. On the contrary, everything about the meeting suggested it was a Saudi initiative, and resulted from Saudi displeasure with American detachment. While no agreement appears to have been reached, the meeting was likely the start of a process that may lead to a mutually beneficial relationship.
Russia, unlike the United States, is little concerned with democracy and, to the Saudis, is stubborn in defending its allies. Washington, in contrast, pushed its old friend Hosni Mubarak out of office without hesitation. Perhaps Russia can fill the strategic vacuum in the region that the United States has left, the Saudis may be thinking.
Beyond this, Obama must seriously consider whether America non-intervention in the Middle East will have other serious long-term repercussions for the United States. The reality in Syria is that people are getting killed in droves, and many Arabs will blame the Americans and Europeans for doing nothing to stop it. This could lead to an argument in the future that the West did not attack the Assad regime because it was complicit in its repression. This conspiracy theory could justify future acts of retaliation against the United States.
All this does not mean that the Obama administration will alter its behavior toward Syria. In fact, the chances are that it will not. But so precipitously has American influence in the Middle East declined under Obama, so openly has contempt been directed at the Americans, that the president must seriously think about his legacy.
Obama does not want to be the president who “lost” Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the twin pillars of American influence in the region for decades. He cannot afford to become the man who looked the other way as Syrian children were murdered by weapons whose use Obama himself declared a “red line” the Syrian regime should not cross.
America has rarely seemed so indolent in the face of barbarism. Is Assad right in expecting no better than empty posturing from Washington? Or will the most overrated of American presidents be shamed into action, if only to salvage his collapsing reputation?
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star. He tweets @BeirutCalling.