Obama adopts a reactive approach rather than showing leadership

What will happen in Syria is the next step in the war of attrition, with direct U.S. participation and direct Arab assistance

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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President Barack Obama has chosen, once again, an “in-between” approach to keep all his options open, no matter how contradictory they are. The anti-ISIS coalition operations started by imposing U.S. priorities on the members of the alliance, with the U.S. insisting that that their concerns must wait because the U.S. has priorities including the elimination of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and continuing the attempts for rapprochement and appeasement with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Arab countries that have taken part in the strikes against ISIS in Syria this week, underscored Barack Obama’s insistence on his priorities. They took part operationally in the raids in the hope that the partnership would practically prompt the U.S. president to contain Iranian regional ambitions in Syria and Iraq – the main theater of the war on ISIS – to challenge them directly and in earnest. Will those hopes be shattered? The answer to this question remains ambiguous, given the conflicting information – if not conflicting U.S. policies in the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

I believe there are clear hints that the five Arab countries that took part in the air strikes in Syria had been coerced, countries that are linked to the U.S. by bilateral security ties that supersede their priorities in Iraq and Syria equally. Yet there are gains that the five countries – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan, and Bahrain – have made through their involvement in the operations in Syria: first, they proved their merit in assuming the responsibilities assigned to them in the coalition against ISIS, regardless of differing views with the U.S. leadership over this alliance.

Secondly, they precluded the kind of partnership that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had sought to forge with the U.S. in counterterrorism, as a way to rehabilitate himself and replace the key Arab countries in the alliance against ISIS wherever it may be.

Thirdly, the U.S. entered – finally – as a direct party in Syria, after a long period of repudiation, hesitation, and pussyfooting that accompanied the positions of the President Obama, since the peaceful quest for reforms turned into a devastating conflict.

Fourthly, the Obama administration, finally and after the death of more than 190,000 Syrians, showed its willingness to provide practical support to the moderate armed Syrian opposition by allowing its Arab allies to supply weapons, train fighters, and provide aid. This is a qualitative shift that could alter the balance of power on the ground, in order to make it possible to resume work toward political solutions.

Fifth, they opened the door to the possibility of overcoming the Assad complex, along the lines of how the Nouri al-Maliki complex was resolved in Iraq by forcing him to step down from his post as prime minister.

Sixth, more measures have been taken against foreign fighters in Syria, under a binding resolution of the U.N. Security Council, which includes Hezbollah fighters.

What the Arab states taking part in this alliance are using as their ammunition is the fact that they are indispensable in this alliance and this war, which the U.S. president said will not end except after the goal of destroying ISIS and its ilk is achieved, no matter how long it takes. These countries are key partners in the war, and are the main influences on the fighters on the ground in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. president, meanwhile, wants a war that he vowed would have no American troops fighting in it.

What will happen in Syria is the next step in the war of attrition, with direct U.S. participation and direct Arab assistance

Raghida Dergham

The cards that Saudi Arabia holds in particular are crucial, especially in Iraq, where Saudi can – if it wants – be the most important actor that influences the indispensable warriors in the war on ISIS and the like, namely, Sunni tribes in Iraq. Riyadh does not need Washington in this matter, as much as Washington needs Riyadh, which has the keys to those fighters on the ground.

In the Syrian arena, the indispensable warriors are the Free Syrian Army and other forces that are classed as part of the moderate armed Syrian opposition. The Arab countries that can provide weapons, ammunition, cash, and take part in air strikes – such as the UAE – are indispensable for the U.S. as well.

In other words, the war that the U.S. president declared from behind the rostrum at the UN General Assembly and the Security Council, cannot be fought without the Arab partners – including Arab states and the Syrian opposition.

Nevertheless, the key Arab partners in Obama’s war were drawn into his priorities, and agreed to begin military operations without prior guarantees for their priorities, namely: containing the ambitions for Iranian hegemony in Syria and Iraq, and removing Bashar al-Assad after convincing his regime to agree to a transitional governing body that would include representatives from the regime and the opposition until elections are held.

One of the reasons, perhaps, is their conviction that U.S. military operations in Syria would not stop with ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates, when it becomes clear to President Obama that the actual result of these raids is shoring up the regime in Damascus and allowing it to defeat the moderate opposition, with the U.S. having shunned the terrorist opposition This is an adventure that the Arab poles are engaging in, in the course of their alliance against ISIS. As to the reason for this, the answer lies in their priorities as well. These Arab powers see in turn that ISIS is a direct threat to them in their home soil, and an existential threat to their states.

So, actually, what will happen in Syria is the next step in the war of attrition, with direct U.S. participation and direct Arab assistance. For this reason, the Syrian conflict could drag on.

The conflict in Syria could drag on and on, in the absence of political accords, especially between the U.S. and Iran, and Washington and Moscow. The attrition would affect the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which is deeply involved in Syria, as well as Hezbollah, which continues to fight all spectra of the Syrian opposition in Syria. Most likely, Lebanon will pay a price through ISIS’s retaliation against Obama’s war on the group in Syria and for the ongoing Hezbollah involvement in the Syrian war.

President Obama chose in his speech before the U.N. General Assembly to mention Lebanon only in one sentence, and he completely ignored Yemen, and mentioned Libya only in passing, while reducing the importance of the Palestinian-Israeli question. Instead, he lectured on the Sunni-Shiite conflict, devoting most of his speech for this topic.

The U.S. president did not present a war strategy except though the standpoint of Arab responsibilities and Muslim duties. He did not address Iran’s regional role beyond its borders in the heart of the Arab world, despite leaked reports that had indicated the U.S. was adamant about tackling the Iranian regional role in the course of nuclear negotiations, followed by other leaked reports that denied this. Obama did not declare a position regarding Bashar al-Assad as he had done before, from the same rostrum, stating that Assad had lost his legitimacy or that his days were numbered, as he once said. Nor did Obama mention the Palestinian state, which he mentioned when he first addressed the UN General Assembly, denying the centrality of the Palestinian cause and only saying that the situation in the West Bank and Gaza at present is not sustainable.

Barack Obama called on the leaderships and the popular bases in the Arab region to radically change their concepts, attitudes, and behavior, but forgot or ignored that their differences with him are primarily “personally political.”

This president has finally decided to engage in the Middle East after ISIS lured him into this involvement. He accepted ISIS’s invitation, and bypassed the demands and political censure from the popular base, deciding instead to dictate his terms to the leaders.

Barack Obama did not seize he opportunity to rework his personal and historical legacy, at the very least in his speech before the world. He declared an incomplete war on terror, just like he declared a futile war on Russia when he named it as one of three major challenges: The Ebola virus, Russia’s role in Ukraine, and the terrorism of ISIS and its sisters.

This is not a conscious leadership. This is a classically reactive policy. If only the U.S. president would rise up to the level of challenges with a comprehensive strategy rather than tactics that keep him trapped in the “in-between” box.

Meanwhile, regarding the Arab participation in the airstrikes on ISIS in Syria, it is no simple matter that the UAE has tasked a woman to pilot an F-16 fighter jet and strike ISIS, which targets women in its barbaric wars through rape and various kinds of oppression and humiliation. There is a very important message behind this choice.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Sept. 26, 2014 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.

Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women’s Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University’s Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham

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