Ever since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, particularly when President Bashar al-Assad responded violently to the peaceful demonstrations in early 2011, President Obama has tried mightily to avoid getting involved militarily in it. This position emanated from his deep political and moral convictions in the imperative of ending the two costly wars he had inherited in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to never again get bogged down in another conflict in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Even after he had demanded that Assad step down in August 2011, and after warning Assad in August 2012 that he will cross a ‘red line’ if he used chemical weapons, President Obama continued to resist the recommendations of some of his senior advisors to arm the moderate opposition groups to better defend themselves and the civilian population and to shore them up against the rising influence of Jihadi factions.
When U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed last spring that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons on a limited scale, the president was forced to announce the adoption of a ‘punitive’ measure. How this came about was telling in itself; at five o’clock in the evening, Benjamin Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, arranged a conference call with journalists to inform them that the administration has decided to provide light arms to some in the Syrian opposition. So far, the leaders of the Syrian opposition that receives humanitarian and technical aid from the U.S. complain that they have not received “one bullet” from the U.S.
The problem that the Obama administration faces right now is that missile salvos are not a substitute for a coherent regional strategy to deal not only with the Syrian nightmare but also with the other countries of the so-called ‘Arab Spring.’Hisham Melhem
This posture was not that surprising, after all this is President Obama, a most reluctant warrior. But this equation was shattered when the Syrian regime mercilessly bombed a number of neighborhoods at the outskirts of Damascus with Chemical Weapons killing hundreds of civilians including a large number of Children. And now, President Obama finds himself inexorably marching towards a limited strike against the Assad regime.
Obama, the reluctant warrior, could morph at any moment now into Obama the weekend warrior, who will issue orders to fire cruise missiles from American destroyers and submarines prowling the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean along with the forces of other friendly countries in a limited military operation for two to three days, designed to punish Assad for using chemical weapons and to deter him in the future, but definitely not to topple him.
Not interested in regime change
The president and his aides stressed on more than one occasion that they are not interested in regime change in Damascus, or in getting involved in a protracted conflict like Iraq a decade ago. The White House went out of its way to create distance between the punitive measure as response to the use of chemical weapons and the bloody struggle on the ground to determine Syria’s future. And even when the president waves the military stick, he stresses his commitment to a ‘political process,’ and the need to convene at the Geneva-2 conference to achieve a political settlement.
The problem that the Obama administration faces right now is that missile salvos are not a substitute for a coherent regional strategy to deal not only with the Syrian nightmare but also with the other countries of the so-called ‘Arab Spring.’ Any limited punitive and symbolic act, even if it was painful to Assad and his regime, if he manages to absorbs it will boomerang terribly against the U.S., and most importantly will have negative repercussions on its regional friends and the Syrian opposition groups that Washington claims it wants to foster. The now infamous ‘limited strike,’ which will be followed by calls for the revival of the ‘political process,’ will expose the U.S. to charges of weakness and fecklessness reflecting its diminishing influence in the region.
A limited strike, if the regime absorbs it, will encourage Iran to continue its nuclear enrichment program, and will embolden the influence of the Jihadists in Syria, who will taunt the more moderate opposition groups that the U.S., once again has turned them down. A limited and symbolic strike against Syria could end up being worse than doing nothing.
This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on August 29, 2013.
Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Melhem's writings appear in publications ranging from the literary journal Al-Mawaqef to the LA Times, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Policy and Middle East Report. Melhem focuses on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media. In addition, 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. Twitter: @Hisham_Melhem