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Saturday, August 24, 2019

America is blind to the big picture on Syria

by Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

© Al Habtoor Group
© AP Images, Victims of an alleged chemical attack are lined up in a makeshift morgue

President Barack Obama has lost the plot on Syria to the extent his critics wonder whether he had one in the first place. If you’ve been following this saga as closely as I have since his ‘red lines’ commitment a year ago, you’ll probably be as bewildered and confused by the twists and turns of America’s Commander-in-Chief as I am. A dreadful crime against humanity was committed on August 21st. We’ve seen tens of videos showing children gasping for air and we’ve heard details of declassified evidence pointing the finger at the Assad regime. A forceful response was assured…or so everyone believed.

Then just when it seemed the US was poised to strike, the President got cold feet. He handed his authority under the War Powers Act to one of the most bi-partisan, deadlocked Congresses in recent times before launching a media onslaught to sell his arguments to war-weary Americans, appearing on six televised American talk shows and an address to the nation over just two days.

The American people didn’t buy it and neither did most lawmakers. No wonder when the proposed strikes were billed as ‘short and sharp’ no more than “a shot across the bow” designed to dent the regime’s chemical warfare abilities. Commentators queried what a slap on Bashar Al Assad’s wrist would achieve and argued that the risk of unintended consequences outweighed the administration’s stated goal of ensuring the regime remained in place.

Obama was facing humiliating defeat but there was no way he could climb down from a ladder of his own making without losing face until President Putin threw him a lifeline with a proposal involving Assad turning over his chemical weapons to the international community. Bashar Al-Assad leapt at the opportunity – and so did President Obama.

‘He who hesitates is lost’ is an expression Obama would have done well to heed. He boasted about American exceptionalism – a concept based on US core values empowering US global leadership – in his address to the nation. But his leadership on halting the Syrian catastrophe has been absent. Had he answered pleas from the Syrian opposition coalition for a no-fly zone, safe haven territories and heavy weapons two years ago, the Free Syrian Army could have sent the regime packing. Instead, parts of the country have now become swamps for foreign jihadists and Al Qaeda linked terrorists.

Moreover, his recent one step forward and two steps back has permitted Assad to evacuate military installations and hide weapons and hardware among civilian populations. The Syrian opposition, the two million refugees surviving on handouts in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq and over 200,000 men, women and children in Assad’s prisons, many being tortured and raped, are right to feel they’ve been abandoned. The Free Syrian Army prepared for an assault on Damascus by consolidating its battalions and handing military coordinates to US intelligence only to find the rug pulled from under their feet.

The Obama Administration is unable or unwilling to see the wood for the trees. As horrific as chemical weapons are, we should not discount the fact that over 130,000 Syrian men, women and children have been robbed of their lives by the regime’s conventional arsenal. Death is final whether it results from poisonous gas or from bombs dropped by airplanes or missiles, which are equally indiscriminate. Discussions between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the nitty-gritty of disarming the regime of just one of its tools of war are being billed as “constructive” but those who continue to lose loved ones, limbs and homes at the hands of regime forces disagree.

The White House and its European allies are ignoring the big picture to focus on details. Western powers are increasingly being seen globally as irrelevant and unworthy of being trusted in a game of geopolitical chess in which Putin, his Syrian sidekick and their buddies in Tehran may shortly announce ‘checkmate’. Putin contends he’s not defending Assad but rather international law, but he showed no respect for legality when, in 2008, Russian troops overran Georgia.

America is keeping the threat of force against Syria on the table in the event Assad fails to live up to his pledges, but so what when Obama has no clear strategy for ending the civil war? Knocking out a few missile launchers and fighter jets won’t be a game changer as long as Moscow stands ready to re-supply.

Saudi Arabia and Gulf States are eager to assist besieged Syrians but more than that, they understand what’s really at stake; the importance of cutting the tail of a snake that slithers from Tehran to Damascus via Beirut. Their greatest mistake is relying on the United States to wield the axe. We, who are directly threatened by a Shiite military and ideological axis, must be committed to leading the charge in our own neighbourhood providing impetus to the US, France and Turkey to rally behind us. We must aim to facilitate good governance in Syria while ensuring the executioners, the torturers and those who bombed and gassed their own people face justice in the International Criminal Court.

Waiting for the US to act is futile. Obama is a ditherer, destined to be overlooked by history. He’s not in the same category as Lincoln, Washington, Kennedy, Reagan or, for that matter, the Bushes, who for all their faults, can’t be accused of being indecisive.

This moment should be seized by the leaders of GCC States. No more hanging on to America’s coat tails, especially when the US is acting like a bit player who doesn’t know his lines. If there’s one thing Obama can teach us, it’s ‘yes, we can’.

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