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Obama, muddling through on Syria

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

The political discourse in Washington regarding Syria is fraught with contradictions, strange shifts and at times it looks and sounds surreal. From the moment President Obama decided to seek congressional authorization for a limited punitive strike against the Assad regime to deter future chemical attack, he opened up the gates for all sorts of political variables domestic and international, that the Obama administration and the nation as a whole cannot predict, let alone control.

The Russian proposal to put Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons under international supervision as a prelude to their ultimate destruction changed equations and created new dynamics that accelerated with stunning speed.

The proposal forced President Obama and his speechwriters to revise and rewrite his discourse last Tuesday night and change it from a mobilization speech to an anguished plea to diplomacy. By extension this gave Putin, Obama’s Russian counterpart, a chance to find a peaceful solution that leads to the dismantling of Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons.

Sigh of relief

Ironically, Obama’s decision not to use his unsheathed sword was met with a collective, albeit muffled sigh of relief from most members of congress who never wanted to own such a vote. President Obama looked more as the explainer-in-chief than the Commander-in-Chief that he ought to be. When the president walked towards his podium he looked as if he has already lost not only the vote in congress but also the argument.

Ironically it was President Putin who threw a diplomatic lifeline to Obama and saved him from inevitable defeat in congress.

Hisham Melhem

From that moment on, he was eclipsed by his Russian nemesis. Ironically it was President Putin who threw a diplomatic lifeline to Obama and saved him from inevitable defeat in congress. Today, President Putin looks like the indispensable man at center stage that could, theoretically at least, neutralize Syria’s chemical demons.

As he did in his public pronouncements since the chemical weapon atrocity in the suburbs of Damascus, Obama engaged in public deliberations about his options, expressed his doubts, displayed his frustration, thought out loud, and displayed his intensions to friend and foe alike.

Muddled

The contradictions and the muddled messages of the Obama administration regarding the question of what is to be done with Syria’s Assad are too numerous to count, but here is a sample:

- The Assad regime is weak militarily and lacks the capabilities of retaliation against an American-led strike; and yet, according to Obama, the Syrian regime still represents a threat to the national security of the United States and its allies.
- Ten days after President Obama dismissed the Security Council as “completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable,” the U.S. shifted course and returned to the Council to explore the Russian proposal.
- President Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry keep stressing that the planned strike against Syria will be very limited and certainly not designed to change the regime or topple Assad; yet they keep invoking the appeasement of Hitler, with Secretary Kerry repeating that the current challenge represents a new “Munich Moment” as if the threats are comparable. But if Syria is such a dangerous menace to the world, why then mount a very limited, targeted strike?
- Oscillating between humanitarian reasons such as the victims of the August 21st chemical attack in order to justify military intervention, as well as the threats to the national security interests of the United States and its allies and friends in the region.
- Two years ago Obama demanded that Assad step down, but now he wants him to participate in a “political process” to dismantle the chemical weapons arsenal. In other words, Assad is an integral part of these efforts, and therefore he will remain in power until further notice.

Did we say that these are strange days and surreal times? This is the first time in the history of the United States that an impending limited military attack is discussed so thoroughly, and so publicly in speeches, interviews, congressional hearings, press conferences and in talks with foreign leaders.

The nature of the attack was explained, elaborated upon, and described in detail, sometimes sternly and at one time in a breathtaking fashion, when Secretary Kerry was pleading that the attack will be “unbelievably limited,” or as small and targeted as Obama said. In his speech Obama spoke about Syria as if Bashar al-Assad is the only actor. The Syrian opposition that he had pledged in the past to arm were absent from the speech.

Surprising future

Obama’s speech clearly indicates that the military strike has been postponed, maybe indefinitely. This means that the foreseeable future will see surprises and produce new variables forcing Obama to raise his hand and confront them. The shadows of the war in Syria will continue to hover over both the Executive and Legislative branches in Washington. Already, Obama’s shifting positions and his dithering and indecisive leadership has tarnished his image and stature in Congress even with some in his own party.

Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee spoke for many when he said that President Obama “has hurt our credibility around the world in the muddled way they have dealt with the Syrian issue…He cannot speak to the nation as a Commander-in-Chief” then came the knockout blow “The president is a diminished figure on Capitol Hill.”

Obama’s speech left many unanswered questions: how long will he give the Syrian regime to give up its chemical arsenal? How will he stop Damascus from obfuscating and playing for more time? How will the inspectors account for these weapons scattered in many sites around Syria while the war is raging on?

Will the friendly Syrian opposition cooperates with Washington in this scheme which guarantees Assad a prominent role? Surely, the extremist Islamists will not cooperate.

It remains that the most jarring aspect of President Obama’s speech was the fact that he reduced the Syrian struggle to the chemical arsenal and its victims, ignoring that the overwhelming majority of the victims were killed with conventional weapons.


This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on September 13, 2013.


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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

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