It shall be written that in the second decade of the twenty first century, when the forces of authoritarianism, Islamist zealotry, and sectarian fanaticism plunged large swaths of the Arab world into a state of ‘the war of all against all’, the reaction of the world’s sole great world power, was equivocal, indecisive, deceptive and cynical. It is axiomatic that Arabs are in the main responsible for their tragic conditions, but it is also self-evident that the United States did, over the years contribute politically and militarily to the immense human tragedies unfolding along a brittle political order collapsing under its own weight.
The United States cannot retrench or resign from a broken region, assuming that it could escape being haunted – and maybe hunted- by the daemons unleashed, in part for sure, by its disastrous invasion of Iraq, its botched and incomplete intervention in Libya, and all the legacies of decades of support of Arab authoritarianism. Yet, this is what the Obama administration is trying to do. All his protestations aside, President Obama in the second half of his second term is not seriously trying to resolve any of the conflicts of the region, including those that he had contributed to, but merely applying half-measures particularly in Syria and Iraq designed to buy him time, while kicking the can down the road to his successor and hoping to avoid disasters he will not be able to ignore, such as the Islamic State (ISIS) knocking at the gates of Baghdad. It shall be written, that Obama inherited a broken Arab world from his predecessor George W. Bush, but that he will bequeath to his successor a shattered Arab world, partly because of his flawed leadership.
There was one pivotal moment during the recent Camp David summit between President Obama and the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that resonated deeply with the Arab leaders according to a participant. The president said to his guests that he invited them because he cares about the region, but that in fact ‘the American people don’t care.’ One wonders if the President was channeling his own deep seated doubts about America’s ability to shape events in that complex region, more than reflecting the supposed ambivalence of the American people.
Words, words, words
President Obama never wanted his tepid support for the Syrian opposition to be translated into effective means to topple the Assad regime, and in fact one can see that with Syria’s national nightmare entering its fifth year, the Obama administration is very concerned that the recent battlefield setbacks suffered by the Syrian army and its allies could lead to the collapse of the Assad regime, hence its return to the position of ‘Assad still represents the least worst option in Syria’. President Obama and his aides still dissemble when they turn the argument of their critics on its head by claiming that they are being asked to ‘invade’ Syria or ‘impose’ a solution on it, when no serious scholar or expert ever suggested such a policy. But the White House did perfect this Syria straw man argument to the point where administration officials seem to believe their own disinformation. The U.S. policy on Syria is cynical because one of the operating principles seems to be to provide the rebels with enough arms not to lose the war, but not enough to defeat the Assad regime.
Well into the sixth year of his presidency, President Obama has little to show for in the Middle EastHisham Melhem
Recently, the Obama administration has created a similar Iraqi straw man. To begin with, the President’s limited and tentative military actions against ISIS in Iraq and Syria betray his public boasts that he is pursuing a policy of ‘degrading then destroying’ ISIS, when in fact he is at most trying to contain the threat of ISIS and leaving the task of destroying the monstrous organization to the next president. Following the fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi into the hands of ISIS, the President called it a ‘tactical setback’ but rejected the notion that the U.S. is losing the war. His Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey was more colorful when he dryly said ‘the Iraqi Security Forces was not driven out of Ramadi, They drove out of Ramadi.’
Secretary of state John Kerry claimed that Ramadi will be retaken within days but he was engaging in wishful thinking, then there were hints of a review of the Iraq strategy, only to be corrected by the spokesperson of the state department that ‘there’s no formal strategy review’. Commenting on the Ramadi debacle White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said that the war on ISIS is still in the ‘degrade phase’ and that President Obama believes that his successor will continue the fight. The straw man reared its head when Earnest stressed Obama’s belief that helping the Iraqis in degrading ISIS is the best long term strategy, instead of a ‘full-scale reinvasion’ as if there is serious talk of a full reinvasion of Iraq.
Judging by his admittedly eloquent speeches, one cannot escape concluding that President Obama believes that his words at times have the force of actions; it is as if you don’t have to follow up on your demands of Assad to step down, or to deliver on threats of retribution if the Syrian despot crosses the president’s red line, or to continue demanding that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should freeze settlements in Palestinian territories, or asking Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop his aggression against Ukraine. President Obama, after more than six years in office still acts as if accommodation and negotiations can resolve every intractable problem regardless of who are the antagonists. He still behaves, as one observer puts it, as if he does not believe that the U.S. has enemies in the world.
Killing past, present and future
In one week the hordes of ISIS stormed and occupied two important cities hundreds of miles apart in Iraq and Syria, proving once again the limits of the U.S. led international coalition against ISIS, which is winning because of its well-earned reputation as a merciless terror organization and because of the weakness of its enemies. A nagging question was asked repeatedly; why is it that the U.S. led coalition failed to bomb ISIS’ columns advancing against the important Syrian city of Palmyra with its unique and breathtaking archaeological treasures, in broad daylight and in the open desert?
This is particularly disturbing given ISIS’ savage war against all cultures and civilizations deemed ‘un-Islamic’ in their fanatic and primitive views. The Assad regime and ISIS are destroying Syria’s present and future, the regime uses barrel bombs against civilians to uproot communities and cleanse (mostly Sunni) neighborhoods to create new demographic facts on the ground. ISIS’s brutal reputation, its ritualistic murdering of people by swords and machetes intimidate ancient communities like the Assyrians, Yazidis and Christians and force them to flee. The Assad regime and ISIS leave in their wake only victims and desolation. And while the Assad regime’s forces never hesitated in bombing archaeological and ancient forts occupied by rebels, ISIS’ zealots relish destroying non-Muslim archaeological sites, including structures revered by Muslims like the sacking of Jonah’s tomb.
The zealots of ISIS are the modern equivalent of a Biblical plague of locusts. This has been their impact on ancient cities and communities; they plundered Assyrian cities including the famed Nimrud once the capital of the Assyrian Empire, bulldozed temples and statutes, ransacked ancient manuscripts, and smashed statutes of deities at the Mosul Museum.
Bride of the desert
The sprawling ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its Greek, Roman and Arab architecture contains archeological wonders not found outside the Eastern Mediterranean region. The thought that the fanatics of ISIS will bulldoze Palmyra’s magnificent amphitheater, the temple of Baal and its roman columns, should send shivers down the spine of every civilized person anywhere in the world. Yes, we lament human loses but we should lament those special stones that still speak to us as eloquently as those artists who carved them. It is a false dichotomy that posits that ancient and historic but ‘dead stones’ should not be among our priorities in Syria and Iraq. Those Syrians, who are fighting for a better future, are also fighting as those who inherited the marvels and histories of the various peoples and cultures that made Palmyra, Aleppo and Damascus, great cities.
If Palmyra, called by Syrians the ‘bride of the desert’ is destroyed, even partially, all of humanity will be poorer. The deep cultural scars that have been inflicted on Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs in Syria and on Nimrud and Mosul in Iraq will never heal. The passage of time may lessen the pain, but it will not diminish, nor should it our collective memories of it.
Silent sectarian cleansing
At the time of ISIS’ depredations in Iraq and Syria, another reminder that the most efficient killers in these orgies of violence remain the state actors, came in the form of another sober report by the Naame Shaam a group of Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese activists that focuses on the destructive role of the Iranian regime in Syria. The title of the report speaks for itself ‘silent sectarian cleansing: Iranian role in mass demolition and population transfers in Syria’.
The reports which is based on mostly open sources, documents with satellite photos, and statistics the frightening role of Iran and its proxies, mostly the Lebanese based Hezbollah, in restructuring almost every aspect of life in Syria. The report provide cases of human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria by the Assad regime with the support and complicity of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The report accuses the Syrian regime, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah of ‘systematic forced displacement of Syrian civilians and the destruction and appropriation of their property in certain parts of Syria, such as Damascus and Homs’. The reports documents how the demolition and reconstruction in some areas are intended to punish those communities supporting the revolution, the majority of which happened to be Sunni. The satellite photos show areas of demolished homes in Tadamoun district in Damascus, and near the Mezzeh airport.
The objective of the cleansing is to get rid of ‘unwanted elements’ and replacing them with Syrian Alawites (an offshoot of mainstream Shiism). The ultimate objective is to secure the Damascus-Homs-Coast (where the majority of the Alawites live) corridor along Lebanon’s eastern borders, with its mostly Shiite inhabitants, in order to create a contiguous geographic and demographic area. Such area could become a rump Shiite state, and it will maintain Iran’s links with its most valuable ally, Hezbollah which is now an integral part of Iran’s deterrence strategy against Israel.
Naame Shaam director Fouad Hamdan who visited Washington recently and met with human rights groups, and government officials to galvanize support to pressure the International Criminal Court to investigate these alleged war crimes, stressed that the report specifically names General Qassem Soleimani who is in charge of overseas operations of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as the main culprit who should stand trial.
It is unlikely that the recent setbacks in Ramadi and Palmyra will lead President Obama to alter his Middle East policy, particularly at this sensitive point in the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, which is seen by some analysts as one of the reasons Obama does not want to antagonize Iran in Syria by taking on Syria’s air defenses or any other military target.
Well into the sixth year of his presidency, President Obama has little to show for in the Middle East. It is practically impossible to maintain the integrity of Iraq as a unitary state, when the Kurds who constitute more than quarter of the population want to determine their future. (The current Kurdish leadership is the last that speak Arabic). Syria is literally in flames, and it was on President Obama’s watch, and after his warnings to Assad, that Syrian civilians were at the receiving end of chemical weapons. Libya is descending towards more fragmentations, bloodletting and the creation of large ungoverned spaces ideal for groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. Yemen’s conflicts will continue to fester for some time to come, and its economic challenges will make governance more difficult than ever. Egypt’s alienation from the Obama administration will continue, and it might discover that the problem is deeper and it involves the Washington ‘establishment’ and not only the Obama administration. And there is no hope of reviving the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. This poor record, makes it imperative for the President to reach a historic nuclear deal with Iran.
In one week President Obama made it clear to the GCC states, to the Iraqis and to the Syrians, that his concept of American engagement in the Middle East is limited to ‘partnerships’, but that they have to lead themselves, fight their own wars, (with conditional backing from the U.S.) and settle their own conflicts. There is a positive element in this approach. Arabs should take the lead in charting their own destinies, and should exercise more responsibilities. But that does not relieve the U.S. from its leadership burdens in the region; deterring predatory states, combatting terrorism and extremism, providing protective umbrella to its allies and contain the proliferations of weapons of mass destruction and settling the protracted conflicts. The U.S. cannot afford to ‘pivot’ away from the Middle East, and adopt a retrenchment mode and call it strategy. President Obama’s policy of retrenchment has called into question the quality of his leadership. If the economy continues to improve, the role of the U.S. in a rapidly changing world, and the quality and role of America’s leadership in the world should be at the heart of the presidential race in 2016.
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem