Obama’s focus on Syria: Too little and too late

By: Osama Al Sharif

President Barack Obama’s foreign policy speech at West Point Military Academy last week was criticized by pundits for being vague about America’s military response to ongoing and future crises around the world.

He talked about America’s leadership and values, but also about military restraint and collective action with US allies. He acknowledged that the biggest threat to America and its allies today is terrorism and as a result his actions in the Middle East will rest on ways to deal with this danger.

On Egypt, President Obama said, “We acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests — from the peace treaty with Israel, to shared efforts against violent extremism.” There was no mention of the aspirations of the Egyptian people and the internal dynamics that took place over the past three years. Fighting terrorism has become the main focus of US foreign policy in the region.

While underlining the role of diplomacy and working with allies, the president failed to mention America’s responsibility in achieving a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. He referred to Iran as an example of where collective action had succeeded in launching serious negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

And on Syria again the president talked about working with allies to ease the crisis. He said that he would work to “ramp up support” for certain elements in the Syrian opposition who “offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator.” The Obama administration is weighing options to provide training and equipment to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but there are growing doubts that this will be enough to change things on the ground.

America’s reaction to the four-year Syrian crisis has been vague and confused. It is not clear what the new direction, if it ever materializes, will mean to the Syrian people.

With America’s focus on fighting extremism in the region it is possible that the training and weapons that will be provided to so-called moderate elements will be used against radical rebels, such as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Jabhat Al-Nusra rather than regime forces.

The FSA is already involved in fierce battles against the ISIL in Der Al Zour, and in the southern district of Darra fighting has broke out between the FSA and Jabhat Al- Nusra. The US is backing the Iraqi army, which has engaged the ISIL in Anbar province.

The Americans are providing technical and logistical support to the army in Yemen which is fighting on two battle fronts; one against Al-Qaeda in the south and another against the Houthis in the north. And just like in Yemen and Afghanistan, the White House is contemplating the use of drones in Syria at some stage.

Obama said that he will ask Congress to provide a $5 billion fund to “train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines” of fighting terrorism. Who will benefit from this and how remains to be seen, but we can expect active US support to countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen.

As America focuses its effort on the fight against terrorism in the region, its commitment to finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis will wane.

Already efforts to resume the Geneva process have faltered. The UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has resigned. Syria’s Bashar Assad is holding tight to power and will be re-elected to a third term in office despite international condemnation.

While it is in the interest of countries in the region to check the advance of militant groups that are now active in Sub-Saharan Africa, Libya, Egypt and Somalia among others, the Arab world and the international community cannot turn their backs to the suffering of the Syrian people. Obama’s offer to train and equip moderate rebels in Syria will not be a game changer. In contrast to Obama’s new/old line of thinking, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said few weeks ago that even if the beleaguered Syrian opposition somehow ousted Assad, a development that appears increasingly unlikely, the country would still be consumed with terror, chaos and starvation. It is clear that the current international standoff on Syria will not end soon. Meanwhile, the war continues and civilians die every day. One third of the Syrian population has been displaced. Refugee camps in host countries are growing. The absence of a political solution is matched only by the non-existence of a military conclusion to the crisis.

This is why Arab countries should look elsewhere for possible breakthroughs. The visit this week by the Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Jaber Al-Sabah to Tehran is a step in the right direction. So is Saudi Arabia’s invitation to Iran’s foreign minister to visit Riyadh soon. The prolonging of war will only guarantee the destruction of Syria. We can’t count on America’s intervention or leadership to resolve the situation. Arming the rebels now will not change things and fits more with Obama’s fight against terror rather on ending the war in Syria.





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