Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia: A chance for some Syria home truths?

As the president prepares to leave office, several questions hang heavy over his foreign policy choices on Syria

Eman El-Shenawi
Eman El-Shenawi - Al Arabiya English
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On August 31, 2013, the Syrian conflict – then in its second year – jolted through a major turning point as US President Barack Obama sought approval from Congress before launching "limited" strikes on Syria. It was described as one of the “riskiest gambles” of his presidency.

A month later, Obama put the strikes on hold.

Now as the president prepares to leave office, several questions hang heavy over his foreign policy choices and that one critical decision. Analysts speaking to Al Arabiya English this week expect a few home truths on Syria to be addressed during the president’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia.

Officials and commentators in the kingdom had frequently voiced concerns over the US’s “failure” to effectively address the conflict in its early days.

“The difference of opinion between Saudi Arabia and the United States on the advisability and benefits of engagement in the Syrian conflict continues,” Dr. Hussein Ibish, a Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington told Al Arabiya English.

“Unfortunately a coordinated, common strategy on Syria is unlikely because the United States and the Gulf states don't agree on how to deal with the crisis,” Ibish added.

Speaking last week, the White House’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Rob Malley said Obama’s visit to Riyadh will discuss the relaunch of political talks, as well as a ceasefire between regime, rebel and foreign forces that monitoring groups say has been violated.

“In Syria, a fragile Cessation of Hostilities … has held so far for the past seven weeks -- again, thanks to the work that the United States has done in partnership with the GCC partners and others.

“And we're seeing the relaunch of political talks. Again, much more needs to be done and we're far from having achieved the goals that we set, but the trend line is positive.

While much of this is tactical guesswork, it has been largely hypothesized that if Obama had given the nod to full-scale American intervention, a regime change would have been forced in Damascus.

At least that was what most Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, had hoped for. Now, the country is grappling with civil war, surging death tolls and the spread of extremism, mainly through ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Many blame the US’s positioning on Syria on the lack of a clear-cut foreign policy.

“It will take the United States years to recover from this non-foreign policy and will almost certainly be drawn into a larger conflict which could have been avoidable from the outset,” Former Republican Congressman Michael P. Flanagan told Al Arabiya English.

Flanagan described the president’s final visit to Saudi Arabia as a “victory lap around the Middle East - even though American policy is an abject failure there under his stewardship.”

But how exactly did Obama’s foreign policy “fail” in the eyes of Obama’s opponents and Gulf states?

The main points of difference between the US and the Gulf, according to Dr. Ibish, was the question of funding and supporting rebel groups.

“The United States was unable to identify any significant contingent of rebels (in large numbers) it felt able to support, so it did not engage in much training, arming or funding of opposition groups.”

Only in 2014, years after the White House had first discussed supplying Syrian rebels with heavy weapons, did Obama ask Congress for money to fund a program allowing US personnel to teach rebels navigation, marksmanship and other skills.

fsa reuters
fsa reuters

But towards the end of last year, Obama admitted "failures" in the US train-and-equip program after defense officials said that only four or five of the recruits had returned to battle.

While Gulf states and the US were both committed to Assad leaving power, the US “prioritized avoiding a complete meltdown of social institutions in Syria, mainly because of the American experience in Iraq in the last decade,” Dr. Ibish said.

“The essence of having a policy is to identify an achievable goal and work towards ensuring its realization,” he added. “But this is something the United States has not been able to do in Syria.”

Some believe that despite the failures, Obama was right to press on with his policy.

“Contrary to popular belief, President Obama does have a plan for Syria. It’s just not one that promises to have much immediate impact on the course of the brutal civil war,” wrote the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson last October.

“The president has been cautious in sending arms to the “moderate” rebels seeking to oust dictator Bashar al-Assad, fearing those weapons would fall into the hands of ISIS or other jihadist forces,” Robinson added.

Back in 2013, Arab and international commentators had argued that Obama was “damned if he did and damned if he didn’t” strike Syria, but this wouldn’t be the last time he’d be in this position.

A year later, Obama faced the same double-edged sword but pressed ahead anyway, ordering strikes against ISIS targets in the war-torn country.

syria strike reuters us jets
syria strike reuters us jets

The move resulted in another turn in US-Gulf relations, with Saudi Arabia part of the anti-ISIS coalition. But this time, the US was urging the Gulf to do more in the fight against ISIS.

“The United States is, arguably, more interested in the battle against ISIS then against Assad,” said Dr. Ibish.

Although Eyad Abu Shakra, managing editor of the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, disagrees: “Actually, Obama’s policies in the Middle East (namely, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine) have been clearly anti-Arab and anti-Sunni, which is pretty counterproductive when he claims to be fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda.

“Obama firmly believes that past American administrations harmed many nations across the world - which, in a sense, is true – however, while he has been trying to 'compensate' former ‘victims’ like Cuba and Iran, he has done nothing to correct the wrongs committed against the Arabs.”

Recently, Saudi Arabia has established a 34-state Islamic military alliance to fight terrorism in Syria, among other countries, and expressed its willingness to send Saudi ground troops to Syria.

Dr. Ibish sees Riyadh’s latest moves as a message to Washington.

“I believe Saudi Arabia was trying to pressure the US into adopting a more proactive policy, and signalling its willingness to take risks in order to pursue the battle against ISIS and possibly the creation of no-fly zones, refugee safe havens or other efforts to provide protection to Syrians from the assaults of the regime and its allies.”

North Thunder (Photo: SPA)
North Thunder (Photo: SPA)

The next milestone in Saudi-American differences over Syria was the US president’s now-infamous “Obama Doctrine” interview with The Atlantic last month, in which he described Saudi Arabia as a "free rider" on American foreign policy.

The comments prompted uproar from Saudi commentators and officials.

“Now that the so-called 'The Obama Doctrine' is out, all misconceptions and delusions must end,” said Abu Shakra.

“I dare say many Arab leaders, as well as commentators, continued to give Obama the benefit of the doubt for too long. When things went wrong they almost always argued that the reason was basically a result of "misunderstanding" rather than clear divergence of political convictions and strategies,” he added.

So, with a history of political and military sparring crammed into five years, how will Obama and King Salman address Syrian peace talks, a fragile ceasefire and raging militancy in the country?

“I do not expect much from the visit,” said Abu Shakra, “Although, I sincerely hope to be proven wrong.

“My expectations are low because I feel the element of trust is there no more. Any real 'solution' – not 'deal' – for the Syrian crisis, will not emerge with this administration around, since it is fully committed to co-existing with Iran's and Russia's priorities in the region,” he added, in reference to the presence of pro-Assad Iranian forces in Syria and Russian jets also supporting the regime.

President Barack Obama, right, meets with King Salman of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office of the White House, on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015, in Washington. The meeting comes as Saudi Arabia seeks assurances from the U.S. that the Iran nuclear deal comes with the necessary resources to help check Iran’s regional ambitions. (AP)
President Barack Obama, right, meets with King Salman of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office of the White House, on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015, in Washington. The meeting comes as Saudi Arabia seeks assurances from the U.S. that the Iran nuclear deal comes with the necessary resources to help check Iran’s regional ambitions. (AP)

During the visit, Obama will also be attending a summit of Gulf states, in which discussions on Syria’s future, including peace negotiations, will undoubtedly be raised.

“I think all the GCC states are concerned about the ongoing conflict and support the talks in Geneva,” Marcelle M. Wahba, a former US ambassador to the UAE, told Al Arabiya English ahead of Obama’s arrival to the kingdom.

There may be differences in the details of how we get to a final solution, for example regarding the role of Assad in any transition, but I believe consensus over the main goals for an end to the Syria conflict are much closer than we are often made to believe.

Ultimately, Ambassador Wahba believes the Syrians are key to the US and Gulf reaching an accord on the conflict.

“The external players, including the US and our regional partners, will find it much easier to find a broad consensus once the Syrians have reached at least a framework agreement on a power sharing structure for a future Syria.”

This article is part of Al Arabiya English’s Special Coverage on Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

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