Obama's Middle East Mess

In August 2011, five months after Syria erupted into violence over government repression, President Obama declared that Bashar Assad should resign from office. Though Obama didn’t use the words “regime change,” he was effectively making that the goal of U.S. policy.

Sixteen months have passed since the president issued his statement. Over that period, the United States did very little to strengthen the relatively moderate, pro-Western Syrian rebels who are competing for arms and influence with extremist, anti-Western rebels tied to al-Qaeda. Instead, the Obama administration relied on the United Nations to broker a diplomatic solution. This strategy was always destined to fail, and it did, with Russia and China vetoing three separate Security Council resolutions. As a result, the situation in Syria is far worse and far more dangerous in December 2012 than it was in August 2011.

Consider the balance of power among different rebel factions. In late July, the New York Times reported that Islamic jihadists, including groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, were “taking a more prominent role and demanding a say in running the [Syrian] resistance.” More recently, in a front-page story published on December 9, the Times observed that a Qaeda-linked outfit known as the Nusra Front “has become one of the uprising’s most effective fighting forces,” with a growing stock of weapons and manpower. On December 11, the Obama administration formally listed the Nusra Front as a terrorist organization and sanctioned its leaders. This prompted thousands of angry Syrians near Damascus to stage a rally defending the group, at which demonstrators carried a sign proclaiming: “We are all Al-Nusra Front.”

It is one thing to argue that America has no business getting involved in a Syrian civil war where the possible outcomes range from bad to worse. It is quite another thing to announce U.S. support for regime change — as Obama did 16 months ago — and then do nothing serious to aid the Syrian opposition. When the president declared that Assad had to go, he put U.S. credibility on the line. If the Syrian dictator somehow manages to defeat the rebels and regain full power, it will be a colossal humiliation for the United States.

To be sure, the odds are increasingly slim that Assad will emerge victorious. But that also means Syria is entering the most dangerous phase of its civil war — the phase when a desperate dictatorship starts firing Scud missiles and taking steps to prepare its chemical weapons for possible deployment. If the Syrians either use those chemical weapons or transfer them to terrorists, they will be crossing the “red line” set by President Obama. Unfortunately, Obama’s red line may actually be encouraging Assad to commit other atrocities without fear of U.S. intervention. As Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch recently told the Associated Press: “We hear a lot from people on the ground who say, ‘So we won’t be killed by chemical weapons, but killing us with a machine gun is OK?’”

At this point, the Western-friendly Syrian rebels are exasperated with Obama’s dithering and inaction. Syria has become a perfect storm of humanitarian disasters and frightful threats to regional stability. Ironically, writes John Hannah, a former national-security adviser to Vice President Cheney, “Virtually every risk the administration warned might be triggered by U.S. intervention has been made all-too-real in the absence of U.S. intervention.” While Obama has now recognized the Syrian Opposition Coalition as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” this gesture falls into the category of too little, too late.

Obama’s failure in Syria is connected to his diplomatic failure in Iraq: Iranian planes have been flying over Iraqi airspace to supply Assad with weapons and personnel, including members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Iranians know that Assad is their most critical Middle Eastern ally, and they know that America no longer has any military aircraft stationed in Iraq — so why not use Iraqi skies to help keep the Syrian regime in power?

Of course, the reason America no longer has any military aircraft in Iraq is that President Obama failed to reach a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Iraqi government. Obama likes to brag about having “ended the war in Iraq.” Yet the worst of the Iraqi violence had ended before Obama took office, thanks to a strategy adopted by his predecessor. Obama was responsible for (1) consolidating the gains he inherited and (2) negotiating a new SOFA before December 2011. His failure to secure an agreement represented a huge victory for Iran, which has become much more influential in Iraq since U.S. troops departed.

Not surprisingly, many Iraqis feel abandoned. In a recent interview with the Daily Beast, one of the Iraqi sheikhs who led the so-called Anbar Awakening recalled the hollow promises that Obama made to him back in 2008. “President Obama said he would not forget all the sacrifices that were made,” said Ahmad Abu-Risha. “Now we look back at that meeting and we think it was political propaganda. What he said, we don’t see it happening.” Thus, Abu-Risha wanted to ask the president a few questions: “Why did you leave Iraq to Iran? Why did you give up the many sacrifices that Americans made?”

Speaking of Iran, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano told reporters on November 20 that Western sanctions are not having “any effect” in deterring Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The Iranians are still “producing enriched uranium up to 5 percent and 20 percent with a quite constant pace.” Indeed, they are apparently so unafraid of Obama that they were planning to murder the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C.

Obama’s mistreatment of Israel has given Tehran even more reason to doubt the credibility of U.S. military threats. In August, for example, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, said that he did not want Americans “to be complicit” in an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “Complicit”? Doesn’t that word suggest that an Israeli strike would be criminal?

As for the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” it looks more hopeless today than it did when Obama took office. Hectoring Israel over the settlements has not earned Obama any great affection from the Palestinians. In fact, the Palestinians think so little of his administration that they aggressively campaigned for U.N. recognition of their “statehood,” despite strong opposition from Washington.

In short, nobody in the Middle East seems to trust or respect Obama: not the Israelis, not the Palestinians, not the Syrians, not the autocrats, not the activists, and not the Islamists. Many Egyptians fear the United States isn’t doing enough to stop the Muslim Brotherhood from trampling democracy. (They also remember that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Mubarak regime “stable” less than three weeks before it collapsed.) And many Libyans are frustrated that Obama mostly ignored their country following the death of Muammar Gaddafi, until four American diplomats were slaughtered in Benghazi.

Last month, Brookings Institution analyst Shadi Hamid lamented that “the United States has somehow managed to alienate both sides of the Arab cold war: Dictators think we’re naively pro-revolution, and Arab protesters and rebels worry we’re still siding with the dictators.” It is a remarkable feat, but not something the administration should be proud of.