The Western optimism about the imminent fall of the Assad regime in Syria voiced so frequently throughout much of the last year is starting to quiet down. President Obama was willing to express confidence that the Arab Spring would claim another triumph in Damascus just a few months ago. But the collapse of the United Nations-sponsored plan for an end to the violence in Syria has once again made it clear not only that the world body’s peace efforts are farcical, but that the administration’s Middle East policies are a hopeless muddle.
The main villain in this drama remains Bashar al-Assad, whose forces continue to butcher the Syrian people. But at this point it must be understood that a Western refusal to openly challenge that dictator and his backers in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran has created a foreign policy debacle with consequences that extend beyond the borders of that tortured country. The United States decided that unlike the case in Libya where intervention to topple the Qaddafi government was deemed easy and relatively cost-free, a repeat effort in Syria was a perilous undertaking beyond the capacity of the West to contemplate. It is certainly true that a more aggressive policy toward Assad would have created risks and would not have been without a high cost. But as President Obama may be learning (in those spare moments when not immersed in his re-election campaign aimed at demonizing his domestic opponents), allowing Russia, China and Iran to help thwart world opinion on this issue will undermine U.S. interests and credibility.
The president fatally underestimated both Assad’s staying power and his willingness to shed blood to hold onto power. But worse than that, he failed to understand that Western passivity created a perfect opening for Iran, ably backed by Russia and China to create a test case by which they could prove that it was still possible to thwart the will of the United States as well as international opinion.
While President Obama’s major Middle East policy speech last May is best remembered for its attempt to ambush Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the issue of the 1967 borders, the bulk of the address was a manifesto of America’s intentions to help the Arab Spring create a new sphere of democracy and prosperity. The speech was remarkable for an approach that could rightly be labeled neoconservative in its devotion to the idea that America could help foster democracy in a region where it was (other than in Israel) largely unknown. But the initiative was overshadowed by Obama’s unsuccessful dustup with Israel and ignored by the Arabs. Other than the president’s brief foray in “leading from behind” in Libya, the United States has been a passive observer in the region.
The only aspect of U.S. policy in the region that could be dignified with the term strategy was the president’s decision to warm up relations with Turkey at the very time the Islamist government of that nation was tilting against Israel and making noises about a revival of Ottoman influence. Though Turkey is a questionable ally, it has become something of a surrogate for Western interests in Syria as it challenged Assad. But even there, Obama has made a mess of things, as it is now clear Turkey is no match for Iran’s allies in terms of its ability to influence events.
The unraveling of the UN peace plan promoted by former Secretary General Kofi Annan (who can now add the triumph of Syrian tyranny to his long list of other diplomatic failures) doesn’t just mean it is more than likely Assad will survive this crisis. The other consequences represent a catastrophe for American interests. Iran looks to be able to hold onto a crucial ally in Assad who will be more dependent on it than ever. And Russia and China have demonstrated that the notion of a world in which America is the only superpower has been supplanted by one in which America’s former Cold War adversaries have become forces to be reckoned with. All this also dramatically reduces Obama’s chances of a successful campaign to pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear ambitions.
Though the president feared the cost of intervention in Syria, it is rapidly becoming apparent that the United States will be paying dearly for his temerity in the years to come.