Obama as the Hamlet of Syria

In the Syrian tragedy, like Hamlet, Obama’s biggest flaw was his hesitancy

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

The deadlocked Geneva II talks on Syria, and the prospect that Russia will support the regime’s refusal to discuss political transition, the worsening humanitarian crisis resulting from the Medieval-like sieges imposed by the Assad regime against whole neighborhoods, the failure of Syria to fulfill its obligations and deliver its stockpile of chemical weapons, President Obama’s implicit admission that his Syria policy is not working, but “we are continuing to explore every possible avenue to solve this problem,” and the mounting threats of Islamist extremists and their potential attacks on U.S. targets, has led to speculation, hints and wishful thinking that White House may be on the verge of shifting its approach to the Syrian conflict towards adopting a much tougher posture.

That view was bolstered, albeit briefly, by Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that Obama has asked his senior advisors “to think about various options that may or may not exist…”

The news reports mistakenly spoke about Obama asking his aides “to develop new policy options,” as if Washington is adopting a new approach to the three year old bloody conflict. Within hours White House officials moved swiftly to put Kerry’s comments “in context,” explaining that he was not talking about a “new initiative” but, as White House spokesman Jay Carney puts it “Kerry was reiterating what has always been the case, which is that the President is always looking at options on policy matters like Syria.”

He added “This is not a one-time thing. It’s not like this is a new review…. But I wouldn’t see this as some new announcement or new consideration.”

‘We are a people of love living under a regime of hate’

On Valentine’s Day, the people of Syria send messages of love via You Tube to the world. The heading was “We are a people of love living under a regime of hate.” The messages went like this: “Amid massacres, a message from Syria on the day of love, from Syria with love.”

In the Syrian tragedy, like Hamlet, Obama’s biggest flaw was his hesitancy

Hisham Melhem

Only the second word in this sentence was changed from placard to placard describing Syria’s unspeakable agony: devastation, starvation, bombardment, death… But in an ambivalent world reciprocity is hard to find. It is even harder to find love in an amoral U.S. administration lacking passion and compassion.

Since the Geneva II “process” began, more than 5,000 Syrians perished. Assad’s use of siege warfare is causing famine in Syria for the first time since the First World War. His sacking of the great ancient city of Aleppo is the first since that jewel of a metropolis was last sacked by the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane in 1400.

And as if the depredations of the Assad regime are not enough, Syrian cities and country side are being ravaged by a new plague of Islamist predators that are terrorizing Christian and Alawite civilians and also Sunnis not sufficiently “Muslim” or refuse to collaborate with their deadly schemes. Syrians are on their own or under the tender mercies of their lethal “friends.”

Obama as hesitant Hamlet

Ever since the Assad regime met the peaceful uprising with fire, President Obama who says that he was elected to end America’s two longest wars in its history; Afghanistan and Iraq, was dead set against any direct military intervention, even if very limited in Syria.

Even when the Syrian regime first resorted to massacring civilians and engaging in sectarian cleansings of Sunni villages and neighborhoods (savage tactics that some of the primitive Islamists purporting to defend the Sunnis resorted to against Alawites and Christians later on) President Obama maintained his emotional and intellectual detachment. He dithered, and obfuscated, he promised to arm the moderate rebels and then he delayed or reneged.

Last June, when the administration knew that the Assad regime has used Chemical Weapons President Obama asked the CIA to supply the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council (SMC) with light arms, but later on we were told the supplies got stuck in the delivery “pipelines” and because of alleged bureaucratic problems. Then it was revealed that the administration never wanted the rebels actually to achieve military victory, but merely to push the regime to accept the Geneva II process. Also, according to officials, maintaining a thin supply of arms to the rebels will help Washington to convince them to go to Geneva.

In the Syrian tragedy, like Hamlet, Obama’s biggest flaw was his hesitancy. He proved time and again that he is unwilling or unable to act quickly during crucial moments.

That tragic hesitancy was on full embarrassing display last summer when he decided publicly that he will strike Syrian military installations, after chemical weapons attacks claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians, only to defer the decision later to congress, knowing that congress was not in the mood for military action. Later, Obama was saved by the bell, when the Russians proposed a deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical arms.

Ever since, the President and his top aides have touted the chemical weapons agreement as a great victory achieved, only because he unsheathed his sword. Ironically, Syria was supposed to have delivered its chemical weapon stockpile to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the first week of Feb. 2014. So far Syria has delivered only 11 percent of that stockpile. Like Hamlet, Obama’s hesitancy affected many Syrians in gruesome and tragic ways. Obama’s hesitancy and dithering, in fact contributed significantly to creating a security vacuum that was immediately filled by a cruel strain of Islamists.

A changing region and a changing approach

American officials correctly say that the old order in the Middle East is changing, mainly because of the Arab uprisings which put a number of States in a “transition” mode, but also because Iran has decided to resume negotiations with the P 5 + 1 group over its nuclear program, and because of the changing energy landscape in North America. And unlike the posture of the last decade, when the U.S. was deeply engaged militarily in two land wars simultaneously, Obama would like to have a lighter military footprint in the region.

These officials admit that Syria is an extremely difficult challenge and is not easily susceptible to outside pressure. Hence, the Administration’s gambling on a “positive” Russian role to help “delivering” Assad, whether on chemical weapons or on the “transition” aspect in the Geneva I Communique.

The Obama administration is still deeply wedded to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and in the meantime would like to contribute to the humanitarian relief efforts, provide limited material support to the rebels and political cover, and work with them and regional allies to isolate the radical Islamists.

The officials are adamant that any U.S. military role in Syria will lead eventually to a deeper involvement like the war in Iraq; and they want those who want the U.S. to resort to military force in the Middle East to understand that the American public has become more “isolationist.”

Main points of contention

These officials expect that Syria will be one of the main points of contention in President Obama’s talks with Saudi officials when he visits the kingdom in late March.

American officials claim that the Saudis and other Arab states wanted the planned military strike in the summer against Syria to have been a major operation, and that a limited attack would not have been sufficient for the anti-Assad Arab coalition.
The thinking in the Obama Administration is that the downfall of Assad will not lead necessarily to the withdrawal of Hezbollah forces or the Iranian security elements from Syria.

When it comes to arming the rebels, you keep hearing the same refrain: we are concerned that the weapons may fall into the wrong hands, and that there are certain dynamics that could transform Syria into another Afghanistan if the weapons flow freely to the opposition.

The Obama administration will NOT under any circumstance arm the opposition to achieve a decisive military victory against the Assad regime, according to highly placed sources. At this stage the US sees an opportunity to collaborate with regional powers to isolate and weaken the worst Islamist groups such as ISIS and al-Nusra Front. In this context the Administration is trying to convince the Russians, so far unsuccessfully, that if Assad remains in power he will be a great magnet for extremist Islamists and these Islamists will eventually hurt Russia in the Caucasus region as well as hurt Iran.

In drones he trusts

It will be counterintuitive for President Obama to use military force, except or unless America’s national security interests are attacked directly. In that context, his exercise of American leadership defers qualitatively from his predecessors. And Syria is a case in point. But the critics of this proposition would point out to the President’s wide use of Drones in his war on al Qaeda and its affiliates.

This is true, and the origin of this approach can be traced back to one of his most important moments in a famous debate in his first presidential campaign with his then bitter opponent Hillary Clinton, when Obama volunteered that if he is elected he will not hesitate to violate Pakistan’s sovereignty in hot pursuit of al-Qaeda leaders. Early in his first term he began to deliver on his promise.

However, the extensive use of Drone attacks has another explanation that is related to President Obama’s political survival. It is true that he is fighting America’s sworn enemies who mercilessly attacked the homeland on September 11, 2001, but he is also preventing them from undermining him politically.

The failed terror attack attempted by Omar Farouk Abdulmutallib, who was recruited by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to blow up an airliner above the city of Detroit, was a turning point. Had the Dec. 28, 2009 plot succeeded, hundreds of U.S. citizens would have been killed, and with them Obama’s chances for another term. Hence, pursuing al-Qaeda in its various manifestations to the end of the earth, including ordering the risky attack on Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, became the most important objective for President Obama. Intervention in Syria, from this perspective, carries unforeseen burdens and none of the benefits of the limited attacks by pilotless drones.

President Obama’s trust in the effectiveness of the Drones may have saved the US from terror attacks, and for this he should be commended, but the drones may have also saved his political career. Obama does not see such reward in Syria. Alas, the Syrian messages of love will not be reciprocated or answered by the hesitant and passionless master of the White House.

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

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