US President Barack Obama has lost the plot on Syria to the extent his critics wonder whether he had one in the first place. If you have been following this saga as closely as I have since his “red lines” commitment a year ago, you will probably be as bewildered and confused by the twists and turns of America’s Commander-in-Chief as I am. A dreadful crime against humanity was committed on August 21. We have seen tens of videos showing children gasping for air and we have heard details of declassified evidence pointing the finger at the Bashar Al Assad regime. A forceful response was assured ... or so everyone believed.
Then just when it seemed the US was poised to strike, the president got cold feet. He handed his authority under the War Powers Act to one of the most bi-partisan, deadlocked Congresses in recent times before launching a media onslaught to sell his arguments to war-weary Americans, appearing on six televised American talk shows and an address to the nation over just two days.
The American people did not buy it and neither did most lawmakers. No wonder when the proposed strikes were billed as ‘short and sharp’ no more than “a shot across the bow” designed to dent the regime’s chemical warfare abilities. Commentators queried what a slap on Bashar Al Assad’s wrist would achieve and argued that the risk of unintended consequences outweighed the administration’s stated goal of ensuring the regime remained in place.
Obama was facing humiliating defeat, but there was no way he could climb down from a ladder of his own making without losing face until Russian President Vladimir Putin threw him a lifeline with a proposal involving Al Assad turning over his chemical weapons to the international community. Al Assad leapt at the opportunity — and so did Obama.
‘He who hesitates is lost’ is an expression Obama would have done well to heed. He boasted about American exceptionalism — a concept based on US core values empowering US global leadership — in his address to the nation. But his leadership on halting the Syrian catastrophe has been absent. Had he answered pleas from the Syrian opposition coalition for a no-fly zone, safe haven territories and heavy weapons two years ago, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) could have sent the regime packing. Instead, parts of the country have now become swamps for foreign jihadists and Al Qaida-linked terrorists.
Moreover, his recent one step forward and two steps back has permitted Al Assad to evacuate military installations and hide weapons and hardware among civilian populations. The Syrian opposition, the two million refugees surviving on handouts in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq and more than 200,000 men, women and children in Al Assad’s prisons — many being tortured and raped — are right to feel they have been abandoned. The FSA prepared for an assault on Damascus by consolidating its battalions and handing military coordinates to US intelligence only to find the rug pulled from under their feet.
The Obama administration is unable or unwilling to see the wood for the trees. As horrific as chemical weapons are, we should not discount the fact that more than 130,000 Syrian men, women and children have been robbed of their lives by the regime’s conventional arsenal. Death is final, whether it results from poisonous gas or from bombs dropped by airplanes or missiles, which are equally indiscriminate. Discussions between the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on the nitty-gritty of disarming the regime of just one of its tools of war are being billed as “constructive”, but those who continue to lose loved ones, limbs and homes at the hands of regime forces disagree.
The White House and its European allies are ignoring the big picture to focus on details. Western powers are increasingly being seen globally as irrelevant and unworthy of being trusted in a game of geopolitical chess in which Putin, his Syrian sidekick and their buddies in Tehran may shortly announce “checkmate”. Putin contends he is not defending Al Assad, but rather international law, but he showed no respect for legality when, in 2008, Russian troops overran Georgia.
America is keeping the threat of force against Syria on the table in the event Al Assad fails to live up to his pledges, but so what when Obama has no clear strategy for ending the civil war? Knocking out a few missile launchers and fighter jets will not be a game changer as long as Moscow stands ready to re-supply.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are eager to assist besieged Syrians, but more than that, they understand what is really at stake — the importance of cutting the tail of a snake that slithers from Tehran to Damascus via Beirut. Their greatest mistake is relying on the US to wield the axe. We, who are directly threatened by sectarianism and extreme ideology, must be committed to leading the charge in our own neighbourhood providing impetus to the US, France and Turkey to rally behind us. We must aim to facilitate good governance in Syria while ensuring the executioners, the torturers and those who bombed and gassed their own people face justice in the International Criminal Court.
Waiting for the US to act is futile. Obama is a ditherer, destined to be overlooked by history. He is not in the same category as Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan or, for that matter, the Bushes, who, for all their faults, cannot be accused of being indecisive.
This moment should be seized by the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council states. No more hanging on to America’s coat tails, especially when the US is acting like a bit player who does not know his lines. If there is one thing that Obama can teach us, it’s ‘yes, we can’.
Khalaf Al Habtoor is a businessman and chairman of Al Habtoor Group.