Monday marked the 1,000th day of the conflict in Syria. The day itself saw stories of the regime on the offensive near the border with Lebanon, refugees struggling with the worsening winter, extremists kidnapping nuns, and continued pessimistic debate over whether the upcoming Geneva II peace conference will be a success. Meanwhile, Washington’s place in this tragic narrative increasingly seems to be on the sidelines.
On the same day, at a conference in Bahrain, the country’s Crown Prince, Sheikh Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, warned that US President Barack Obama’s administration would lose influence in the region if it persisted with its “transient and reactive” foreign policy. Through a bizarre coincidence, another story was about to be broken by the renowned US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh that claimed to show US policy on Syria in its most reactive light to date. Hersh claimed, based largely on off-the-record interviews with US defense officials, that the Obama administration had cherry-picked intelligence surrounding the sarin gas attack in Damascus in August. His article claimed that the US knew that the radical Al-Nusra Front also had access to such weapons but that the regime was blamed as part of a decision to intervene militarily against it. This decision was then undermined by a lack of international support and domestic opposition in the States that led the US to embrace the face-saving agreement to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.
Sadly, Hersh’s story is unlikely to be corroborated and may join the increasingly long list of shadowy stories concerning US intelligence and Middle East weapons. What the story does conform to, however, is the widely held view of the Obama administration’s approach to the Syrian conflict as being reluctant and tactically responsive, rather than a strategic approach aimed at achieving a clearly articulated set of goals.
Perhaps such a position should not come as a surprise. After all, Obama is the president whose first foreign policy objective was to put an end to the conflicts started by his predecessor. What is more, there was little initial demand for US action, as the conflict appeared to have a momentum and destiny of its own—fueled by the seemingly irresistible force of the Arab Spring. At the start it was described as a “revolution,” and Washington’s interference could have easily become a hindrance, undermining the legitimacy of the uprising in a country where conspiracy theories need little prompting to take root and grow.
However, as the regime revealed its willingness to deploy every force in its arsenal to stay in power there was, perhaps, a moment—fleeting, if it existed at all—where the US could have led the world in an effort to enforce the principle of “Responsibility to Protect” introduced by the UN in 2005. That moment passed, and instead massacres, sectarianism, chemical weapons and the politics of mass suffering were all unleashed on the people of Syria.
Meanwhile, with the grinding civil war not delivering any sense of a clear solution or “good guys” to support it, the US public, war weary and blighted by economic recession, withdrew interest and support for their country to do more—something that Obama’s cautious realism was happy to oblige. Obama’s readiness to use military force to degrade Assad’s war machine in September may in retrospect have been more about protecting the US’s reputation following his statement on “red lines” than it was about bringing an end to the Syrian conflict. Dr Zbigniew Brzezinski, US National Security Adviser to President Carter, admitted to The World Today that the decision for the US to call on Assad to step down was “baffling because I was sufficiently well-informed to conclude that there wasn’t much behind those words.” But if this isn’t Washington’s job, and if a multi-polar world means a divided UN that can’t agree on Syria, who else can put up a bulwark against the fallout from the ongoing disintegration of a state at the heart of the Middle East?
The demise of Syria surely will have severe implications for long-held US interests such as the security of Israel and access to energy supplies, aside from the consequences of the birth of another “failed state” driving the further proliferation of extremist groups. More and more voices are beginning to suggest that the US indecision on Syria is not such a productive policy choice. Among them is Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a former US ambassador to Thailand, who had a piece in the Washington Post last weekend that summed up exactly the wider apathy the US seemingly has towards Syria. “As millions suffer in Syria,” he wrote, “America looks away.”
Six weeks before the Geneva II meetings, leading foreign policy thinkers convened in Washington to think out “the best possible peace for Syria.” Participants from the US Institute of Peace (USIP) and Foreign Policy magazine held a “PeaceGame” event, a simulation exercise in which experts assumed the roles of the international, regional and local parties to the conflict in a fascinating public forum exploring the direction of the conflict. The US has the potential, if fully engaged, to bring a heady combination of great thinking, heavy logistical lifting and great political pressure to the conflict in Syria—but first it must decide whether it is willing to transition from the use of tactics to a strategy that can explain a longer-term position towards both the conflict and the region.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.