A sea change has come over the situation in Syria. "The French foreign minister said on Thursday there was no sign the Syrian crisis was going to be resolved anytime soon, in contrast to his prediction last month that the end was near for President Bashar al-Assad."
"Things are not moving. The solution that we had hoped for, and by that I mean the fall of Bashar and the arrival of the coalition to power, has not happened," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in his annual New Year's address to the press.
There are signs that the opthalmologist of the Damascus is off the hook. Abderrahim Foukara, the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International claimed in an NPR interview that President's inaugural speech signals that Assad can keep his skin. "I should say that if Bashar al-Assad were listening to the speech that President Obama made on Inauguration Day, he would probably have rejoiced in some parts of it. The president said that as far as he's concerned, the decade of wars is over. And Bashar al-Assad would probably interpret that that the United States is not going to come directly to the rescue of the armed opposition in Syria."
Foukara gave two reasons for the about face. The first was the steadfast support of Russia and Iran for Assad. They were not backing down. The second was the realization stemming from Benghazi debacle. "The other concern is that the United States has for some weeks now been saying that jihadi groups, as it's called them, are operating in Syria, having come from Iraq, affiliates of al-Qaida, and giving weapons to the Syrian opposition may end up in the wrong hands. So they will not do that."
That doesn't mean Assad won't implode at some point anyway. But when he does it won't be where the State Department wants it.
Obama has kept the true import of Benghazi from everyone but America's foes: it was the moment when the Obama administration realized it had been duped into arming al-Qaeda. The ship of Obama's state is now beached on the shoals. It's full back and dump the ballast. He has no appetite for "forward" in international affairs, just "forward" into the taxpayer's wallets.
What Obama will try to do now according to "the foreign policy expert and former Obama official, State Department official, Anne-Marie Slaughter" is to "find the happy medium between not committing us to a decades-long ground war and choosing not to do anything". Like referring Assad's crimes to the international criminal court and similar initiatives. Such PR exercises will appear "bold" to Candy Crowley but they will fool no one in the region. Syria will remain aflame while the administration hunker downs in the firehouse. Foukara added:
this situation in Syria has already festered for two years and the longer it drags on, the bigger the threat to U.S. interests in that part of the world. Syria is really central to the Middle East region, and having Syria destabilized could destabilize Lebanon, could destabilize Jordan, could destabilize some of the Gulf states.
So the United States has huge strategic interests in having the situation in Syria sorted out. How long will it take to get sorted out? Nobody knows. But we know one thing for sure - is that that United States is keen not to alienate the Russians in Syria, and as I said, the Russians are a major supporter of Bashar al-Assad because the United States needs Russian support in dealing with the issue of Iran's nuclear program.
Benghazi has provided a glimpse on a huge foreign policy debacle that the press is determined to ignore. The Western position in the Middle East has been weakened to the point where the Western alliance itself is showing signs of strain. The New York Times describes the possible departure of Britain from the EU core. "Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain has added to Europe’s malaise, vowing to reduce British entanglement with the European Union — or allow his people to vote in a referendum to leave the bloc altogether." Note the word "allow". There has always been resistance to "allowing" the British public to vote on the issue before because surveys suggest that the British public might well vote to up stakes and leave.
Even the United States has injected itself into the matter, with an unusually public insistence that Britain, a close ally, stay in the union, fearing that its departure would heighten centrifugal forces that would weaken Europe as a diplomatic, military and financial partner.
But why should the British get behind an Obama administration which has so far shown no ability to win against anything other than the Republican party? Washington has given away so much of the store to its rivals worldwide that it has become positively dangerous to sail in company with it. Obama like a spendthrift who has run out of money, has taken to passing the dinner check to France. But France has no money either so Britain is tiptoeing for the door before the waiter can find them. It is every man for himself.
That leaves France alone in North Africa and leaves no one in the Gulf and the Levant.
The worst case scenario for the Obama administration is that Syria represents its high water mark; a kind of Stalingrad for the West. The danger is that from here on forces hostile to the West will take the counteroffensive while it can only feebly resist by referring people to the United Nations. But there is worse.
Bruce Reidel at the Daily Beast writes that the world's "last absolute monarchy" -- the Kingdom of Saudi Araba -- may be where the next blow will fall. "While a revolution in Saudi Arabia is still not likely, the Arab Awakening has made one possible for the first time, and it could come in President Obama’s second term."
The same demographic challenges that prompted revolution in Egypt and Yemen, a very young population and very high underemployment, apply in Saudi Arabia. Extreme gender discrimination, long-standing regional differences, and a restive Shia minority add to the explosive potential. In recognition of their vulnerability, the Saudi royals have spent more than $130 billion since the Arab Awakening began to try to buy off dissent at home.
Nor is Saudi Arabia alone in its predicament. Reidel notes the whole area is like a house of cards. The Saudis "have sent tanks and troops across the King Fahd Causeway to stifle revolution in Bahrain, brokered a political deal in Yemen to replace Ali Abdullah Salih with his deputy, and sought closer unity among the six Gulf Cooperation Council monarchies." But if the Kingdom goes none of the rest can long hope to survive.
Facing the House of Saud is one enemy no king or dictator has ever beaten. Father Time. "Every succession in the kingdom since its founder, Abdel Aziz bin Saud, died in 1953 has been to his brothers. King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman are the end of the brood." And they are desperately old. Reidel states the obvious:
For the United States, revolution in Saudi Arabia would be a game changer. While the U.S. can live without Saudi oil, China, India, Japan, and Europe cannot. Any disruption in Saudi oil exports—whether due to unrest, cyberattacks, or a new regime’s decision to reduce exports substantially—will have a major impact on the global economy. In addition, the CIA war against al Qaeda is heavily dependent on the kingdom: Saudi intelligence operations foiled the last two attacks by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on the American homeland. The U.S. military training mission in the kingdom, founded in 1953, is the largest of its kind in the world. The Saudis also have been a key player in containing Iran for decades.
The other monarchs of Arabia, meanwhile, would be in jeopardy if revolution comes to Saudi Arabia. The Sunni minority in Bahrain could not last without Saudi money and tanks. Despite all their money, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates are city states that would be unable to defend themselves against a revolutionary regime in what had been the kingdom. The Hashemite dynasty in Jordan would be at risk as well without Saudi and Gulf money and oil. Only Oman is probably isolated and strong enough to endure.
And therefore it is on the Kingdom that any struggle for the region must ultimately center. Even though the Obama administration has obtusely been content to fritter away American strength with a whack-a-mole strategy in Afghanistan, Mali and elsewhere, America's enemies will have long recognized that the center of gravity, the linchpin of the area, is the money and religious authority of Saudi Arabia. They may do what Obama could never do: focus on the point of weakness, go for the jugular.
There to stop them is the champion with the faked muscles. President Obama's announcement that 'a decade of war is now ending and an economic recovery has begun' will cut ice with no one but his tame press. To America's enemies it must signal the exact opposite. It must sound like Obama will not be coming out at the bell. He may try to declare himself the undefeated champion of the world and hope he gets away with it, like he got away with everything else. Chris Matthews will hear in those hollow boasts "the Gettysburg Address". But to others the message will be plainer. "No mas! No mas!". But at least the boxer Roberto Duran could once count on his manos de piedra. Today all the West has left to rely on is the manos de mierda.