Friday, July 8, 2011

Obama’s great escape on Syria

The Obama administration has embraced evasion and self-delusion in dealing with the ongoing repression in Syria. Until now it has avoided demanding an end to Bashar al-Assad’s rule, even though all the conditions for such a demand have been met, while peddling the absurd possibility of a dialogue between the regime and the opposition.

Assad has interpreted this irresolution as a green light to pursue the carnage. However, if we momentarily abandon the moral argument for supporting Syria’s emancipation movement and look at America’s performance in light of its own national interests, what do we see? Behavior, again, characterized by evasion and self-delusion.

When Barack Obama became president, Washington’s principal priority in the Middle East was containing Iran and ensuring that its nuclear program would not serve military ends. Yet the administration never developed a cohesive strategy to achieve those objectives. Obama accelerated the pullout of American soldiers from Iraq, to Iran’s delight, and while the US backed new sanctions against Tehran, this often seemed a substitute for a more multifaceted, versatile American approach to addressing the Iranian challenge.

One news item this week shows what the Obama administration is up against. On Wednesday, in a highly significant event, the Iranian first vice president, Muhammad-Reza Rahimi, traveled to Baghdad to preside over the signing of six cooperation agreements between Iran and Iraq. The more profound import of the visit was that Tehran is consolidating its ties with Iraq as Washington prepares to withdraw its remaining forces from there by the end of the year. Rahimi declared that “the pain of the past” was behind the two countries, and added that Iran was willing to help restore security in Iraq.

In the ambidextrous language of diplomacy, an offer to help restore security is another way of saying that one can create insecurity. Rahimi’s statement was, implicitly, a warning to the Iraqis that Iran would really much prefer that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki not extend the American military mission in Iraq beyond 2011. To push that message home, in recent months Iran has supplied sophisticated weaponry and equipment to Shia militias in Iraq, allowing them to mount more effective attacks against American soldiers. Last week, for instance, three Americans were killed in a rocket attack at a base near the Iranian border.

What has the administration done to counteract this Iranian bid to expand its already substantial influence over Iraq? Very little. With Obama so keen to terminate America’s long Iraqi interregnum, his latitude to sanction Iran has been greatly reduced. This alacrity has exacerbated Washington’s vulnerabilities in Iraq, but has also severely damaged its relationship with the Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia above all. The Saudis have little faith in American protection, and the great danger is that their anxiety will lead them to further destabilize Shia-dominated Iraq by manipulating its sectarian antagonisms.

Even more puzzling, the Obama administration does not appear to have seriously debated the advantageous role Syria’s crisis might play in thwarting Iranian ambitions. It doesn’t take a particularly discerning mind to understand that the fall of the Assad regime would represent a major blow to Iran in the Levant. Yet instead of thinking the option through, Washington has continued to uphold, against the wishes of a majority of Syrian protesters, the possibility of a dialogue over reform between a sanguinary leadership and its victims.

We are not talking about Washington imposing its hegemony over Syria, let alone resorting to armed force in the country. This is not about repeating the ill-thought-through Libyan experience. Rather, the US can, and must, take a principled position in favor of democracy in Syria, which means openly advocating the departure of the Assad regime, which has lost all legitimacy. Only Washington has the authority to oversee an Arab and international diplomatic endeavor to prepare for a smooth Syrian transition.

This wouldn’t be easy, but it is doable. The Saudis and Egyptians could be persuaded to lead Arab action if they are convinced that Assad’s exit would weaken Iran. At the United Nations, the Obama administration would have a hard time with the Russians and Chinese. But as the regime in Syria loses ground, the likelihood that the confrontation there will take on an overtly sectarian coloring can only increase. Such a development would be a disaster for Syria; it could also be one for its neighbors with mixed sectarian societies. Regional peace would suffer, justifying Security Council intervention.

If the Arabs, the Security Council, and Europe (where France and the United Kingdom have been far ahead of the US on Syrian matters) can reach a consensus on a transition in Damascus, they might be able to induce the Assads to leave quietly, given certain guarantees. It is not set in stone that the family will fight to the last man, but it will fight on for as long as it sees the Americans and everybody else dithering.

The humanitarian, principled case for insisting that the Assads cede power is the most compelling. But Washington’s lethargy has been little shaken by the potential strategic benefits of a democratic change of regime in Syria, guided by Syrians. Iran is watching Syria with trepidation. However, it must find terribly reassuring Barack Obama’s ostrich-like yearning to escape fresh involvement in a Middle East trouble spot, and his incongruous assumption that Iran can somehow be restrained by an America reversing at full-speed in the region.

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