Is America abdicating its values in Syria?

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By Dr Harry Hagopian, Middle East North Africa (MENA) Consultant

The latest opinion piece from our consultant on the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, Dr Harry Hagopian looks at the way the US has handled the ongoing situation in Syria. Originally published on Dr Hagopian’s website


Over the past few weeks, I have come across a whole host of articles, commentaries and tweets that castigated – sometimes gently, at other times less so – President Barack Obama. Broadly, those comments zoomed in on the fact that the US President has not acted in any decisive way over Syria and that his lukewarm propensity to lead from behind has meant that Syrian moderate aspirations for a better future were thwarted violently.

After all, President Bashar Assad is now an even more brutal dictator who nonetheless finds himself again in a somewhat politically less vulnerable place.

A recent Opinion by Hisham Melhem entitled Obama in the Middle East: What we’ve got here is failure … of leadership in Al-Arabiya was another strong indictment on the inexcusable laxity of American politics. Hussein Ibish, in his equally recent Opinion entitled Obama must start leading and stop dithering in Syria in The National was perhaps slightly milder in style but carried the same message. And when these two key observers write on Syria, I sit up and take notice.

So how can I weigh in with my own thoughts today?

It is a fact that the initial high hopes Obama raised in his address in Cairo in 2009 at the beginning of his first term withered away by his prevarications and painful reluctance to act when the Syrian regime crossed many treacherous red lines. This meant for many pundits that he is by omission aiding and abetting a dictator to continue with his criminal ways of crunching the majority of the Syrian people who had risen up against him. After all, the statement that Daesh / ISIL must take priority in our military ‘strategies’ does not really cut any mustard because this barbarian movement was nowhere in existence at the beginning of the unarmed uprisings in Daraa and across Syria. It was only later that this whole uprising became weaponised, when proxies and mercenaries muscled in on the action and when the regime started volleying indiscriminate chlorine-filled barrel bombs on population centres. Besides, is it hard to fathom that Daesh / ISIL and the Syrian regime have a symbiotic relationship where the parasite would not freely kill the host?

This reality on the ground has not changed much in recent weeks either. It is clear that President Obama and his advisors have not suddenly begun listening to organisations like HRW or White Helmets and then denounced those regime-led crimes as intolerable. Yet, here we are witnessing a US Secretary of State almost sweeping the whole Crimean / Ukrainian debacle under the carpet (as has seemingly been done with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia) and voicing willingness to work mano a mano with Russia for the sake of defeating the rabid radicalism of Daesh / ISIL.

Besides, we now also have a refugee influx (more of a trickle compared with the burden on Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey) from Syria that necessitates action. And according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 95% of all civilian deaths have been caused by the regime and most refugees are fleeing the atrocities of the regime too. Besides, it also seems to me that the EU is in a tug-of-war between the compassionate pragmatism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel & the angry populism of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

So Russia now moves into the fray – and I am sure that more will be said by President Vladimir Putin during his address at the UN General Assembly today. But as PJ Crowley, former Assistant Secretary of State and now Fellow at The George Washington University Institute for Public Diplomacy & Global Communication wrote recently, Syria represents Russia’s last bastion of significant influence in the Middle East. Its strategic location enables Russia to project power in the Mediterranean. Yet parallel to this Russian strategy, many in the region also see in Syria the expansion of Iran’s regional ambitions. However, no party in the current international coalition, save perhaps Iraq, considers Iran an ally.

Where does all this leave the US – and the EU as its obedient understudy? In my opinion, the US Administration never intended to get bogged down in the multiple morasses of Syria. The cynic in me would say that Syria’s misfortune is that it neither has any resources such as oil or mineral ores nor any global strategic importance to warrant an R2P-style intervention. The more pragmatic, though, would recall olden statements by Lord Palmerston, Charles de Gaulle and Henry Kissinger highlighting how nations in their decisions have dispassionate interests rather than allies or enemies. This seems to be the case for Syria when compared with other – equally messy – countries such as Iraq and Libya.

In the final analysis, when pundits criticise the indifference of this US Administration, I would argue that they are applying a wrong benchmark. The question should not be whether the USA is not coming to the rescue of decent Syrians. Rather, it should ask why the USA would think that it should necessarily be entangled in Syria? Or to put it more bluntly today, could one not also argue that the USA under the Obama Administration no longer acts as a world player anymore and therefore is no longer the same hegemon of past decades? If Syria is viewed by the USA as a case tugging at the American humanitarian heart strings, then that is not a political argument. But if a case could be made to show that the USA has a political interest in helping Syria toward political emancipation and human rights implementation, then the argument shifts dramatically and the response from the White House becomes more robust.

However, the US President clearly does not think the latter argument is the case with Syria. So has this been an American abdication of values in Syria? That I believe is the wrong question, and hence the answer is wrong too!