x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Lack of strategy behind Obama's isolation on Syria, analysts say

Middle Eastern countries, sensing this US hesitancy and uncertainty, do not want to become involved in limited US action that could have unintended outcomes close to home.

Barack Obama speaks about Syria from the Rose Garden at the White House on Saturday. AFP
Barack Obama speaks about Syria from the Rose Garden at the White House on Saturday. AFP

NEW YORK // The Obama administration scrambled yesterday to gather domestic support for military strikes against Syria, with the president saying he would seek congressional approval before taking action.

The move came after wwinternational support for intervention evaporated last week.

A variety of reasons underlie the US isolation, analysts said, but chief among them were the unanswered questions about what the limited strikes would achieve, and what their consequences might be, as well as a refusal to be dragged into a war with no good options, especially if the US has already committed itself to act.

Britain, Washington's most dependable military ally, voted down any involvement, leaving Mr Obama on the verge of unilateral action, a model of American power he has sought to do away with over the course of his presidency.

If the US was only willing to conduct limited cruise-missile strikes to punish the Assad regime but which would do little to end the civil war, "absolutely no one wants to get more deeply involved", said Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut. "It's not worth the risk for them."

There also doesn't appear to be a clear plan for any next steps. "Limited air strikes are tempting, but what if no real change happens?" said Mr Sayigh. "The regime will learn that's about as far as the US can and will go, and they can, in fact, do what they want.

"Let's say the regime continues to use chemical weapons but much more carefully. There's not strategy to face that. Unless the US has a game plan for what happens the day after, then 10 days after - diplomatically, militarily, politically - then there is a real risk of this ending up as very counterproductive," he said.

In that eventuality, the US could be forced to take further military action and get sucked into a potential quagmire that it has avoided for two years, or undermine its credibility.

Mr Obama "runs the risk of looking weak any way this turns out", a former White House adviser told the Politico website.

Middle Eastern countries, sensing this US hesitancy and uncertainty, do not want to become involved in limited US action that could have unintended outcomes close to home.

The Arab League yesterday pushed up its Tuesday meeting on Syria to today in light of impending US action in Syria. The league, which condemned the Syria regime for using chemical weapons is unlikely to endorse a strike.

"I think the reason for that is that unlike the case with Libya, there are some serious divisions," said David Pollock, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank. "Behind the scenes [some countries] are very reluctant to endorse outside military strikes against Assad" because they fear the consequences.

Yesterday, Mr Obama reiterated his reiterated the administration's desire to see a negotiated political settlement between Damascus and the rebels.

But analysts said the US had failed to pursue an effective diplomatic strategy to bring about negotiations.

"Everyone seems to be viewing this as a vexing problem that just has to be managed, instead of asking whether the crisis might be an opportunity for creative and potentially game-changing diplomacy," Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt wrote on Foreign Policy magazine's website.

According to Mr Sayigh, "there's been a failure of diplomacy from the beginning". The US and its western allies again boxed themselves in by saying at the beginning that Mr Al Assad must step down, and taking a tone with Russia, Syria's chief ally, "that is unprecedented since the end of the Cold War in its harshness".

Last year, the Arab League and other supporters of the Syrian opposition did not consult with Russia before taking a binding resolution for a UN security-council vote, which Russia then vetoed.

"The point is engage the Russians but we've seen no evidence that they've made a real effort to work out a common platform" on issues, such as the prohibition of chemical weapons, that the West, Russia and China share.

The US and other supporters of the Syrian opposition have also not pushed it to take more meaningful steps in its own diplomacy within the country, where it has maintained the position that Mr Al Assad must go first and everything else will be figured out later.

"There has been no real attempt to tell people supporting the regime: 'Here is the mechanism we propose for transition, here are interim measures that allow you a share and everyone else a share, and you will be part of deciding priorities and how to go about it,'" Mr Sayigh said. "And that is not a political strategy."

 

tkhan@thenational.ae