November 20, 2014 | Business Insider
Obama Is Making His Middle East Allies Look Like Chumps
Last week, CNN reported that President Barack Obama had asked his national security team for a review of the Syria policy. According to the report, the review is premised on the recognition that removing Bashar Assad from power is a necessary element in the strategy to defeat the Islamic State group (ISIS) in Syria.
The leak about the review came amidst allied complaints over the direction of the anti-ISIS campaign. It also came ahead of sensitive meetings with the Turks and Saudis. However, none of the officials quoted in the report actually corroborated its principal claim; namely, that committing the United States to the removal of Assad was a precondition to success against ISIS.
In fact, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel dismissed the report during a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, stressing that there was no change in strategy or direction. A few days later, President Obama himself fielded a question from the press about whether the administration was “actively discussing ways to remove [Assad] as a part of [a] political transition.” Obama answered with a flat “No.”
At this point, Obama’s response shouldn’t surprise anyone. The president established the guiding principles of his present approach to Syria in late 2013, and he has never wavered from them. In recent months, he has been ever more open and emphatic about his opposition to a regime change policy in Syria and about the need to find a role for Iran in any solution to the Syrian war.
At Odds With Allies
Needless to say, these principles set the US at odds with its allies over Syria. But the White House gives no indications that conflict with allies is a major source of concern, and, therefore, a shift toward regime change is highly unlikely.
At the core of Obama’s approach to Syria is a rejection of proxy warfare against Iran and its assets. The president has clarified this position in several interviews. Most recently, he reiterated it in his address to the UN General Assembly in September. Instead, the solution should be for Washington’s regional allies to sit down and reach an understanding with Iran over Syria.
After stating at the UNGA that there can only be a political solution in Syria, Obama added: “It’s time for a broader negotiation in the region in which major powers address their differences directly…rather than through gun-wielding proxies.”
Obama began to openly talk of including Iran as a central stakeholder to be negotiated with over Syria about a year ago. At the time, however, the president, also at the UNGA meeting, spoke indirectly about including Iran, as he welcomed “all nations” with influence in Syria to work toward a political solution.
A year later, this has become his explicit position. As he told reporters in Brisbane, for an eventual solution in Syria, “the various players involved, as well as the regional players — Turkey, Iran, Assad’s patrons like Russia — are going to have to engage in a political conversation.”
Indeed, according to a recent report in al-Rai, Syrian opposition members relayed being told by a senior White House official that “any solution you want to present us on Syria must include the words ‘Iran’ and ‘Russia.’”
Although having the Syrian opposition negotiate with Assad has been the default US policy, Obama may have introduced a big, yet little-noticed, amendment to the American position. In the context of the Geneva process, the US supported a plan that called for the Syria opposition and the regime to form a mutually acceptable transitional government. US diplomats sold this to Washington’s allies as an implicit acknowledgment that Assad could not be part of that transitional process.
However, after the failure of Geneva the Obama administration has imagined an ever greater role for Assad in the transition that it envisions. Obama now speaks in terms of Assad not “presiding” over “the entire process.” Obama once depicted the transition as a bridge to a post-Assad Syria. Now it is a bridge to nowhere.
Of course, Obama readily acknowledges that there is no prospect for resuming political talks in the near future. This means that all this talk of transitions in the future is nothing more than a means of signaling the American attitude toward Assad in the present.
De Facto Acceptance Of Assad
This de facto acceptance of the Syrian dictator creates room for initiatives like UN envoy Staffan De Mistura’s plan, calling for “freezing” the conflict and fostering local ceasefires (which the previous UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, notably described as “part of Assad’s war plan”).
Obama’s preference for eschewing proxy warfare in favor of “de-escalation” — which is what the White House put out last month through one of its surrogates — dovetails with De Mistura’s initiative, which apparently has US support.
But much like with the inclusion of Iran as the principal interlocutor, the parameters of the discussion today, whether it’s “de-escalating,” or “freezing” the conflict between the rebels and Assad, and focusing instead on ISIS, all have roots in White House talking points from late 2013 to early 2014.
Especially after the Geneva 2 conference ended predictably in failure, the White House began floating the ideas that dominate the discussion today. Namely, shifting away from removing Assad, or even a political transition, and more toward humanitarian relief and humanitarian ceasefire zones, as well as toward prioritizing the fight against radicals.
In addition, this was when the US began moving aggressively toward formally including Iran in any discussion on Syria.
Yet regional allies continue to press Obama on his Syria policy. Indeed, the allies who have agreed to join the US-led coalition, like Riyadh and Doha, did so in part in order to try and influence the policy to address the Assad problem.
Others, like Turkey, are still conditioning their participation on the creation of a no-fly zone and safe zones, as well as concrete action against Assad. The Turks are said to be suspicious of the De Mistura plan, and they want a no-fly zone and protected areas instead.
However, ahead of Vice President Biden’s visit to Turkey, the administration has made it clear that its position on a no-fly zone remains unchanged. There doesn’t seem to be much progress on anything else the Turks are asking for, either.
Likewise, Obama’s public announcement that there was no active discussion about removing Assad came before his meeting with Saudi Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah. The White House statement on the meeting emphasized Riyadh’s help in the fight against ISIS and in engaging the new government in Baghdad, making no mention of Syria.
Whether they have joined the coalition against ISIS or not, US allies increasingly look like chumps; their interests and concerns totally ignored by the White House.
What’s more, it doesn’t seem as though the US president is too concerned about even the appearance of alliance management, as he’s telegraphed publicly and in no uncertain terms that there’s no forthcoming shift in his strategy—the basic parameters of which have long been set.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.