Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Opinion: Obama and the Syrian Caricature | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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President Barack Obama looks back toward the East Room of the White House in Washington, on Friday, April 12, 2013. Source: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The US administration has declared its determination to provide non-lethal assistance in the form of bullet-proof vests, night vision goggles and other devices to the Syrian opposition. The assistance comes in response to recommendations made by the US State Department in coordination with international parties. There has also been a news leak about updated plans for US military intervention in Syria. The question on everybody’s lips is whether Obama has changed his attitude towards the embattled nation.

Imagine the following caricature: Obama is running, carrying a big net and trying to catch something falling from the sky. That thing is Syria.

In reality, the US administration is taking a back seat on the Syrian crisis—an attitude it also adopted when handling the Libyan crisis. But there is one small difference between the two: in Syria, the US is not seated behind NATO troops, but rather behind the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Al-Nusra Front. Washington is allowing all of these groups to lead in the hope that it will reap the last-minute benefit: seeing Assad removed from power with the least possible effort.

Anyone who contemplates US’s stance towards Syria must understand that Washington does not take any initiative in its response to the crisis; rather, it moves only in reaction. All that matters to the US administration is to get involved the second Assad falls, in order to claim victory in the hope that they can influence the next stage of Syria’s existence.

What the US government has not yet understood is that Syria is far more complex than Egypt or Tunisia—indeed, it more complex than any of the Arab Spring states, or even Iraq. The more time Washington allows to pass before it assists the FSA and the Al-Nusra Front, and the longer it refuses to confront Iran, the more difficult and destructive the situation for Syria and the region will become. These effects may last for decades to come. The Syrian revolution is not like the Egyptian one, where the Americans jumped on the bandwagon and claimed to have been victorious. Even in that conflict, a senior American official privately admitted that his country had committed many serious mistakes in Egypt.

Syria will be more complex: Iran and Hezbollah exist in the same way as Al-Qaeda, and they are just as bad. There is also a long-entrenched climate of suspicion and intimidation, and accusations of treason are commonplace. If Washington fails to have a strong presence in Syria, the future will be even more difficult than the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Washington is now extremely late to respond to the Syrian crisis, and it will be racing against time if it decides to intervene directly.

The situation on the ground is complicated and is only getting more complex as rebels advance. The sectarian divisions that have existed in that country for so long have already taken deeper roots. Washington must be made aware of how late it is to start intervening in the crisis—of how it must intervene as soon as possible instead of sitting in the back seat behind the FSA, the Al-Nusra Front, Iran and Hezbollah. The US, the Arabs, and the international community must make the next move—they cannot let anyone beat them to it.