America’s isolated stance on Syria

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

American President Barack Obama’s decision to provide the Syrian opposition with light arms and ammunition is not considered a significant shift. It’s certainly not a strategic move either, but a limited tactical one that does not live up to the level of military escalation adopted by the regime forces supported by Hezbollah fighters and Iran - a military escalation that was translated on ground through successes in Qusayr and Damascus.

Obama’s policy towards Syria is still hesitant and cautious. It’s based on reactions and not on making initiatives

Hisham Melhem

This stance reflects Obama’s evaluation and style in dealing with the war on Syria. Ever since the unrest erupted and until the joint statement of the G8 summit was issued in Northern Ireland, the American president has been, and still is, a hesitant and cautious player who succeeded in resisting the recommendations of his prominent consultants to intervene in Syria. He reluctantly took the decision to arm the opposition after it became clear that Bashar al-Assad’s trespassing of red lines, as stated by Obama, regarding the use of chemical arms call on him to alter his calculations as he publicly vowed. In addition to that, there’s also been the fall of Qusayr - an even that shook Washington and its allies. The expression “alter my calculations” was translated into announcing the limited arming of the opposition.

Failing to please

But Obama’s decision did not completely please any party. This includes the opposition which pushes and pressures and perhaps even begs to attain advanced weapons. The decision will also not please those who call for a more extremist stance against Assad, particularly those in the secretary of state. It will also not please the Arab and European allies who call on America to play a leading political and military role. Obama justifies his delay in providing the opposition with weapons by saying that the latter was not organized or “mature” enough.

Even the manner in which announcing the decision to arm the opposition was made was weak. It happened in the shadow after 5:30 p.m. and in a brief media announcement carried out by the deputy national security adviser to the media. If Russian president Vladimir Putin is committed to helping Assad to win, then Obama is absolutely not acting as if he is committed to support the opposition to achieve victory on the battle field.

Sticking to his plans

Obama is still sticking to holding the Geneva conference 2 although Putin’s and Assad’s behavior do not imply that the conference will be a logical option in the near future. Obama still rejects imposing a no-fly zone on Syria and he still rejects shelling Syrian airports. These suggestions were recently made by John Kerry and the military command, which agrees with Obama in his hesitation to resort to power, the president refused them.

The worst part for the Syrian opposition is that Obama allowed President Putin in the G8 summit to impose a veto in the final statement - a veto against mentioning that it’s a necessity to get rid of Assad during the transitional phase.

Obama’s policy towards Syria is still hesitant and cautious. It's based on reactions and not on making initiatives. Instead of contributing to weakening Assad and forcing him to negotiate, this policy has unintentionally led to strengthening him, even if temporarily.

This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on June 20, 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

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