Threats without consequences

Baria Alamuddin
Baria Alamuddin
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US President Theodore Roosevelt was known for his foreign policy advice that one should "speak softly, but carry a big stick”.

Things could not possibly be more different for America’s current policy in Syria: President Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry have roared like lions when setting out their red lines – but bleated like lambs when it comes to making good on their threats!

Does John Kerry have a very short memory, or does he just believe that we all do? When Kerry hints at consequences for those who fail to abide by their commitments to the Syria ceasefire and the negotiations process, does he realize that we were all present the last time he set out such conditions and completely failed to follow through?

At some point the Obama Administration must find itself eligible for an award as the government which has had its bluff called the most times. The US’s failure to enforce its own red line of the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons is only the most famous such incident, but there have been so many more.

On this occasion America was responsible for one of the most spectacular diplomatic gaffes ever, when - following Al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in August 2013 – John Kerry said: “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that.

But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done, obviously.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov ingeniously took Kerry’s rhetoric seriously and announced that Russia would convince Syria to relinquish its chemical arsenal; thereby cutting the ground out from under the US’s efforts to engineer a robust international response.

During the early years of the Obama presidency, Prime Minister Netanyahu appeared to be making a full-time occupation of calling Obama’s bluff: Refusing to abide by demands to halt settlement building; failing to implement confidence-building measures; and refusing to engage seriously with efforts to kick-start yet another round of the peace process.

By the time Netanyahu found himself standing for re-election, he had already stepped across so many American red lines that he felt himself able to publically ridicule the very prospect of a two-state solution – which has represented the cornerstone of the US vision for brokering peace for God-knows how many decades.

So once again we find John Kerry talking tough on Syria and accusing the regime of trying to torpedo the peace efforts, after comments by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem who rejected UN proposals for discussing a political future for Syria after Al-Assad.

Kerry declared: “This is a moment of truth, a moment where all of us have to be responsible.” But should we really be expecting a genocidal regime with its back against the wall to behave responsibly - and are there any consequences if it doesn’t?

The problem for Kerry is that he can splutter and bluster about how annoyed everyone is, but we have been here so many times before that we know that the US is completely impotent about taking steps to underpin its rhetoric.

At several key moments during the peace process, Kerry has been forced to come out and deny threatening to discontinue support for the Syrian opposition if they didn’t engage in the peace process. Whatever the truth of this, it is certainly symptomatic of US support which has been half-hearted at best, in a process overseen by a president notorious for “scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum” during Syria briefings.

The very existence of these talks is based on another highly humiliating incidence of bluff-calling by the Russians: After four years of defying all US attempts at the UN Security Council to address the Syria conflict; by mid-2015 President Putin felt able to insert himself as a major player in the conflict: Setting up military bases; running air campaigns against the US-backed rebels; and enabling the Assad regime to fight back in key areas.

It is staggering that Russia has gone from being irrelevant, to being the major powerbroker that the US has to do business with if it wants to see peace. But then Putin has called Obama’s bluff on so many occasions; in Georgia, in Ukraine; over security issues in the Balkans and Eastern Europe; over US deployment of missiles to Poland; and even over Russia’s granting of asylum to US whistleblower Edward Snowden.

President Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry have roared like lions when setting out their red lines – but bleated like lambs when it comes to making good on their threats!

Baria Alamuddin

Meanwhile, Iran has been calling Obama’s bluff on the nuclear deal; twice violating core provisions by testing ballistic missiles – in one case provocatively firing them near a US aircraft carrier in the Arabian Gulf: An inflammatory gesture, secure in the knowledge that America feels more bound by the nuclear deal than the Islamic Republic does.

At the end of the day, this is a matter of credibility. The US under Obama has lost 90% of its credibility in the Arab world because of its unwillingness to follow through on its promises, red lines and policy statements.

We can feel contempt and disgust for figures like Bashar al-Assad, Ayatollah Khamenei, Binyamin Netanyahu and Kim Jong-Un. These figures are dictatorial bullies who thrive on persecuting those weaker than themselves.

However, they have all become emboldened and empowered in the shadow of this American Administration, because they know that their actions will not have consequences, so they can behave with impunity; even when this involves actions which are provocatively counter to US interests and in violation of international agreements.

Vladimir Putin follows in a distinguished tradition of autocrats: Always following through on his threats; always calling his opponent’s bluff; and always pushing the international community to its limits in testing what he can get away with.

Such tactics explain how Putin succeeded in bullying his way into a commanding position on Syria. For Obama’s naïve approach of always believing in the good intentions of his international interlocutors; Putin is his worst nightmare.

That’s why I was not surprised when a senior Russian diplomat who I was recently interviewing bragged to me that Russia was in a position to impose a solution in Syria on its own terms, and that the Americans and Europeans would have no alternative but to accept Russia’s fait accompli.

The only factor mitigating our concerns about the weaknesses of American foreign policy over the past eight years and how this has emboldened tyrants around the world, is when we look at several of the candidates for the coming US presidential elections and realize that in fact, things could be far worse!
Baria Alamuddin is a journalist and commentator on Middle East current affairs.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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