Jun 05 2013

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Obama & the Middle East Meltdown

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No Way to Run a Foreign Policy...

No Way to Run a Foreign Policy…

America is in retreat in the Middle East.

That is not a value judgement, but a fact.

And it is dangerous.

In Iraq, President Obama executed the Bush administration’s plan for the phased withdrawal of US forces. But where the Bush-negotiated plan provided the option to retain a small, residual military force in Iraq to help buffer the transition to full sovereignty, the Obama administration used an Iraqi negotiating delay as a pretext to pull out all US forces in full, surprising the Iraqis and regional allies.

In Afghanistan, the President’s 2009 troop surge was less effective as a matter of policy as he coupled the announcement of fresh boots on the ground with a date final for the troops’ withdrawal. The Taliban and their extremist allies could simply mark their calendars and wait. Now, the clock for a complete US withdrawal from Afghanistan is ticking, seemingly detached from an unsettled military situation on the ground, that could imperil any post-withdawal civilian government.

Speaking about US policy in Vietnam more than a generation ago, former US Senator George Aiken (R-VT) said that the US should declare victory and go home. President Obama appeared to be channeling his inner Aiken in recent remarks on a new US security posture at the National Defense University. In the speech, POTUS talked about the definitive removal of US forces from Afghanistan as if, by that unilateral act alone, he could end the conflict on his authority.

No statement yet from the Taliban on whether they are signing on.

These individual actions inform a broader Administration narrative with regard to the Arab Spring. Caught off guard by the spontaneous protest movements, the Administration has never developed and championed a pro-active, coherent strategy to advance American interests with regard to the multi-faceted social movement. Indeed, the US response over the last two years has been defensive, piecemeal and unimaginative, geared more toward minimizing the US role than recognizing the constructive uses of US power in support of freedom and self-determination.

Now, the recent history of US retreat and indifference in the greater Middle East, coupled with the  halting, fractured,  minimalist response to the Arab Spring,  has created a dangerous vacuum that threatens to jeopardize US foreign policy as events rage out of control in Syria.

Like so much of the Administration’s foreign policy, Syria’s experience with the Arab Spring did not go according to plan. The plan, such as it was, saw Syria mimicking Egypt, with large-scale protests forcing Assad from power in favor of a more representative and democratic government.

Clearly no one bothered to check with Assad, who, having seen the calamity that befell Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, clearly felt that a revolution was not to his advantage. No one apparently checked with the Russians, who, having been all but shut out of Middle East politics over the last 25 years, were uninterested in abandoning their last geopolitical foothold, indeed, a client state that provided a strategic naval base on the Mediterranean. And most importantly, no one was talking to the Iranians, who had painstakingly assembled a Shia path of influence from Tehran to Tripoli, Lebanon – a path that would collapse without a friendly government in Damascus.

Not that this should have come as a surprise.

While Syria was swept up in the Arab Spring movement, the nation was always fundamentally different from it in important respects. Specifically, governments that had been toppled in the Arab Spring were overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim in character. The difference was gauged in the relative influence of religion in public policy, but there was never an issue what that religion would be.

Syria, in contrast, was the first Arab nation in the protest movement which pitted Sunni against Shia; a Sunni Muslim majority population ruled by a minority Alawite (Shia Muslim) government. As a result, there was no way that the protest movement could win without upsetting the balance of power in the region, as well as the longer-term interests of very powerful players.

Unless the protestors turned rebels won very quickly, a bloody civil war, supported from the outside, was all too real a possibility, as it has, in fact, turned out.

Today, 80,000 Syrians are dead. Tens of thousands more are wounded. Millions are refugees. Assad, supported by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Lebanese Shi’ite, has gained the upper hand against the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that had made such progress against the regime since 2011. The Sunni Gulf states and Saudi Arabia have provided signficant assistance to the FSA, but nothing on the order that Assad was ultimately getting from his backers.

Worse, the proxy battle in Syria is bleeding into other multi-sectarian states in the Middle East, creating political instability, region-wide, that has consequential ramifications for the US.

Iraq has experienced its worst domestic violence since 2008, with over 2,300 casualties resulting from sectarian violence in May alone.  Minority Sunnis, inspired by the Syrian resistance, have stepped up attacks on the Shi’ite government, already burdened by its heavy-handed governance and religious discrimination, potentially destabilizing a delicate and uncertain political accommodation.

In Lebanon, which suffered through its own, destructive, 15-year civil war in the mid-70s-80s, violence in Syria has rekindled sectarian animosity, where 41 percent of the population is Shi’ite, 27 percent Sunni and 16 percent Christian.  Increased bombings and other  inter-Muslim violence have created a fresh cloud of uncertainty over Lebanon’s future.

In addition,  Hezbollah, the semi autonomous Shi’ite militia that was created, financed, trained and armed by Iran as a counter to Israel in Lebanon, has now taken on a prominent role in supporting the Assad regime with fighters.  The proximity of strategic towns and crossroads in Syria to the Lebanese border compounds the risks that fighting in Syria will cascade into Lebanon, something that the Lebanese Army is virtually powerless to stop.

Further to the south, Jordan faces a different problem. While the overwhelming number of Jordanians are Sunni, nearly half of Jordan’s population is Palestinian, many of whom are refugees or descendents of refugees from Arab-Israeli wars in the 20th century. Jordan has managed this massive influx of people into a mostly poor Arab state by creating political and economic incentives that favor native Jordanians – a source of social tension with resident Palestinians.

Now, after two years of fighting to the north, Jordan is  home to more than 500,000 Syrian refugees, which further strains limited natural resources, and potentially creates new and powerful social pressures for the Jordanians, the longer the Syrians remain. Not to mention that fighting in Syria could easily spill over the border into Jordan.

So, where is the Obama administration in all of this?

So far, the Administration has treated Syria as a contained domestic conflict. It has refused to (publicly) provide armed support to the FSA. It has declined to pursue a “no-fly zone” that could provide cover for Syrian refugees and a base of operations for the FSA, much as NATO did in Libya in 2011.

Indeed, beyond expressions of political support for the FSA, and toothless demands that Assad must go, the Administration has, until late, focused only on the specific security issues associated with Syrian WMDs; that Syrian government use of its large arsenal of lethal chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” for US intervention. But even that threat turned up empty after small amounts of chemical weapons were in fact used and the Administration coughed and moved on.

Consider this.  While violence rages from Lebanon to the Iranian frontier, SecState John Kerry is trying to broker peace between the Palestinians and Israelis.  At no time since the late 1960s has there been less incentive for the Israelis to cut a deal, particularly with a Palestinian authority that is hopelessly divided between a governing entity and a terrorist organization.

Where is the leadership?

The truth of the matter is that there is no coherent US strategy for Syria.  Indeed, beyond withdrawal and retrenchment, there is no coherent US strategy for the greater Middle East. The hard-earned gains of more than a decade of war, a trillion dollars of taxpayer money and most importantly, the loss of 5,000 American lives, are  now in jeopardy through feckless and shortsighted US actions.

What we face is Syria is not a civil war that is tidy and containable; it’s a civil war in Islam, and the US must view it as such, with all its regional implications.

At stake is not simply whether Assad stays or goes, uses WMDs or not, but whether Iran will be allowed to win a proxy war  in Syria that will formalize its influence to the Mediterranean, while destabilizing critical Arab states in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.

Indeed, Iran’s bold geopolitical gambit today is nearly as dangerous as its nuclear program, which has enjoyed a renaissance and respite over the last five years, bringing Persia that much closer to a nuclear capability without serious impediment.

What is the impact on US credibility if either of these goals are achieved, both in the Middle East and around the world?

Dithering is an action, not a strategy. But dithering does not come without consequences.

The longer we delay, the worse they will be.












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