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Obama’s ‘New Beginning’ in the Arab world filled with false starts

The U.S. failure to support the Syrian opposition has damaged the credibility of President Obama’s promises to the region

Published: Updated:

A freshly-inaugurated President Barack Obama made hefty promises to the Arab World that seem unobtainable in his second term. Months into his first term, the U.S. president vowed, from a podium at Cairo University in Egypt, “a new beginning” with the Arab, Muslim world, saying that he will work to relieve tensions that had been building.

But nearly five years later, the Arab and Muslim world is seemingly embroiled in chaos and crisis—and President Obama’s foreign policy seems to be falling short.

Cairo, the host place of the president’s 2009 speech, has since become wildly chaotic, due to political ousters, leadership vacancies and military rule, all the while subjecting its citizenry to continued human rights violations and general instability.

Despite a new constitution that is now only several months old, it seems that Egypt is not changing for the better, anytime soon, with the sentencing just this week of 529 people in a trial that was absent of any basic due processes.

The crisis in Syria

If Egypt is chaotic, then Cairo’s neighbor to its north east is just plain disastrous. The crisis, which has entered its fourth year, has left over 100,000 people dead and over 2.4 Syrian refugees registered in the region, according to the latest U.N. figures.

Currently, Syria leads the world in forced displacements, with 9.3 million people unable to find a safe place to call home within their country. The continued crisis sits squarely on the shoulders of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his regime, which in recent months has gained momentum, due to the failings of the U.S.-backed opposition fighters.

The Free Syrian Army is particularly embattled and in apparent need, now more than ever, of increased U.S. aid, as they tackle the Assad regime along with extremist groups, such as the al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The White House “has not done enough to help deal with the Syria crisis” and could have issued “direct strikes on the Assad regime,” said Andrew Tabler, a Senior Fellow at The Washington Insitute for Near East Policy.

U.S. support falling short

In a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs for the U.S. State Department, Anne Patterson, admitted that the United States is falling short in their support. “Absolutely we're not doing enough to help the moderate opposition. And our deliveries certainly of nonlethal equipment have been stymied by a -- by a series of logistical issues and security issues…We are trying to change our strategy.”

Patterson continued: “We've spent over $60 million in supporting [Syrian] communities. But, no, of course we haven't done enough to support the moderate opposition.”

Jeff White, a Defense Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said “The U.S. had, and has, the capacity to do much more in terms of military assistance to the rebels with only limited risk. It would have been simpler and less risky if aid had been provided earlier but it can still be done.”

Increasing assistance to the opposition is in the cards for the U.S. administration—much to the delight of Saudi Arabia, which has, for several months now, been openly agitated about America’s more lax approach to the crisis.

En route to the President’s visit with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh Friday, National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes even said: “I think our relationship with the Saudis is in a stronger place today than it was in the fall when we had some tactical differences about our Syria policy.”

To add insult to injury in the saga that is Obama’s foreign policy, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced this month that the U.S. is cutting its 2015 defense spending budget to about $495 billion, which would in turn, cut the U.S. Army to around 440,000 troops, its lowest number of troops since before the Second World War.

These cuts make allocating greater military presence in Syria (not to mention giving attention to the ongoing crises that the United States is still engaged in: Iraq, Afghanistan) severely limited.

Tabler, however, said that it does not diminish the United States’ ability to take tangible action against Syria. “Budget cuts affect the military aspect in terms of ground troops, but not overall ability to use standoff assets (missiles) and other weapons” against countries like Syria.

After the announcement of budget cuts, Secretary of State John Kerry testified several times ahead of lawmakers - his former peers - to explain that though we are seeing increased “complications” in the “world we’re living in today,” and the steep defense cuts, the United States is still a leading force in the global sphere. But, it is hard to figure how the United States is still in the driver’s seat with the international community. Secretary Kerry himself said: “We are beginning to behave like a poor nation,” when discussing the cuts to the U.S. defense budget.

Refugee disaster

The global community is definitely not taking America’s recent foreign policy in stride - not only for political, but also economic reasons. The sustained conflict in Syria has created an undeniable refugee crisis in the region - with Syrian citizens spilling into Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey.

Taking Lebanon as an example: the influx of about one million Syrian refugees into Lebanon is causing the country to feel like it is bursting at the seams - with its resources stretched thinly over its citizens and the refugees they are playing host to. According to the latest U.N. figures, there are nearly 230 registered Syrian refugees for every 1,000 Lebanese, which they say, makes it the largest per capita concentration of refugees in any country in recent history

Among the other challenges host countries encounter is working to appropriately provide for the refugees. Currently, there are 400,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon that are in need of schooling - compared to the 300,000 Lebanese children that are in public schools. The governments in the region are seemingly drowning in the lack of stability and reinforcements around them.

But the region itself must also play a part in bettering its condition, some in the United States say.

Former Assistant Secretary of State Department P.J. Crowley said: “There are many voices calling for the United States to do 'more' with little clarity as to what that is. No one wants a repeat of what happened in Iraq, but as of yet, no one has been able to recreate the consensus that existed with Libya in 2011.”

“The fact is the United States can do more and will do more, but the region has to figure out what it wants from the United States. ..and the region itself is deeply divided,” he said.

President Obama and his administration made hefty promises to be a force of change and support in the Arab and Muslim world, vowing to restore trust in a region marred by years of war and strained ties. But as the crisis in Syria roils on with all the world bearing witness, and the United States commits mostly nominal, symbolic support, it is easy to see how the Middle East will expect to see a lot more tangibles before its faith in a “new beginning” with the United States can be fully restored.

Yasmeen Alamiri is with Al Arabiya in Washington, DC. You can reach Yasmeen on Twitter: @Yalamiri