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America's Dented Reputation and Prestige in the Middle East and Beyond

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What does President Barack Obama intend to do, now that he has admitted that "with each passing day, more people inside of Syria are suffering," that "the state of Syria itself is crumbling," and that "[this] is "bad for Syria. It is bad for the region. It is bad for global national security," "because...extremists...have moved into the vacuum in certain portions of Syria in a way that could threaten us over the long term"? The U.S. President's frustration will not save Syria from what Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called, in a testimony before Congress, an "apocalyptic disaster." Obama's lament for the "heartbreaking" situation in Syria will not help the victims of explosive barrels, deliberate starvation, and siege. It will do little to help the victims of terrorism, which metastasized in Syria because of the prolongation of the conflict, as a result of the farce of U.S. dissociation, and thanks to Russia 's nationalistic hubris. If Barack Obama is now determined to mend his old policies, then he should first embark on a quest to restore the world's confidence in him and his promises. He must upend the reputation he personally acquired because of how he has dealt with the Syrian crisis. If he genuinely believes that the deteriorating humanitarian situation, the growth of Islamic radicalism, and the continuation of killing and crimes against humanity, as well as war crimes, all make Syria "one of our highest national security priorities," as he said, then the U.S. president must put forward policies and not just express heartbreak. Frustration does not constitute a policy, but rather a way to avoid positions that Barack Obama knows full well what features they should have. The roadmap to a radically new stance on the Syrian tragedy is available to the president, but what he needs to do is to make bold decisions instead of hiding behind his finger. Today, will Obama continue to hide behind his finger or will he surprise everyone and act?

The point is not that the U.S. president should reverse the decision to keep the U.S. clear of the others' wars in deference to the American public. No one expects U.S. soldiers to be deployed to Syria under any circumstances; even the military strike that Obama had threatened the regime in Damascus with before he backed down in the 11th hour is no longer on the table, for those watching and waiting to see what Barack Obama will do, as he hints at new shifts in his policy on Syria. The first stop on the road to change in any policy will necessarily have to be the reassessment of previous policies, to identify their successes or failures.

In Syria , the policy of attrition and mutual exhaustion and destruction between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his allies - Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) - and the Salafist extremists and al-Qaeda affiliates, has failed. The regime in Damascus believes it is on the verge of victory, and is confident that it will survive and that it has not been drained and exhausted. Its allies are determined to fight any and all battles on its side or on its behalf, while the regime continues to be showered with weapons from its ally Russia and cash from its ally Iran .

Extremists and terrorists have seen Syria as a global magnet for their ideological battle. But the self-dissociation of the Obama administration from the Syrian crisis has helped these profiteers proliferate and take advantage of the U.S. aversion to involvement in Syria . The prolongation of the conflict because of the triple Russian-Chinese veto at the UN Security Council has also helped the schemes of the extremists and terrorists, who find themselves a major and as of yet unexhausted actor in Syria . So it is time to recognize that the policy of attrition, exhaustion, and mutual destruction in Syria has failed miserably, and instead resulted in a tragic disaster for Syria and its people. There is no room for this policy to continue unchanged.

There is no way for a decisive military victory to be achieved by any side in Syria either, as both sides have been mutually exhausted. As regards the idea of an alliance between the regime forces in Damascus and its allies, and the Western powers, whose intelligence agencies have flocked to Damascus to exchange information about al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and their ilk, this is the delusional wish of the regime and its allies - but also an example of the manipulative nature and shortsightedness of the policy of Western powers, led by the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly suggested that the Obama administration will not contract Bashar al-Assad and his dynasty as the cornerstone of the war on terror. He said repeatedly that Assad was the magnet attracting terror to Syria and the region. He left the impression that the Obama administration will thwart Damascus 's wager on dragging the U.S. into a political partnership in the war on terror, as Damascus felt the U.S. intelligence community was prepared for such a partnership.

Damascus 's tactic is patience, and it is wagering on exhausting Washington . Damascus is confident that the Obama administration will once again back down and follow the path drawn for it by Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow towards a partnership in the war on terror, with a view to evade the obligations regarding a transitional political process in Geneva 2, as this would practically establish an alternative ruling body to replace Assad's regime.

President Obama is required to clarify his position directly on this issue, and not just through his Secretary of State. There is an impression that Obama is using Kerry for political posturing, while keeping his options open in a way that is not necessarily in line with the administration's public discourse. But even if this is just an impression that the axis of Syria, Russia, Iran, China, and Hezbollah have, the fact that the U.S. president has failed to clarify his position on the partnership desired by this axis reinforces the latter's strategy

The U.S. president must therefore clarify who he is and where he stands on the strategy of partnership with Bashar al-Assad in the war on terror, which has been drafted by Moscow , backed by Tehran , and endorsed by Damascus . To be sure, it would not be logical for the Obama administration to revive its demands for Assad to step down, if it is going to approve a strategy that adopts him as a cornerstone.

If Barack Obama chooses to refuse the call for such an alliance, then he must pursue a clear, coherent, and determined strategy that would include plans to eliminate the growing Salafist extremist scourge in Syria , and the Neo-Jihadists and foreign fighters that the prospect of a terrorist-ideological war there is attracting. One way to achieve this is to engage in intelligence-based cooperation regionally and internationally, in tandem with qualitative measures with the partners in the dialogue on Syria and other partners who have experience in pushing back and defeating al-Qaeda and its ilk. Another alternative way is to rebuild confidence - and quickly - with internal Syrian factions in the moderate opposition and local leaders, as had happened in Iraq through the so-called tribal Sahwat or Awakening.

Certainly, insisting on the success of Geneva 2 and its primary objective, namely the establishment of a transitional governing body with full powers, is also extremely important in this effort. Here, U.S.-Russian relations come into play. This relationship, which has been widely praised in the few months after the agreement on dismantling the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal, must take on a practical dimension. The Obama administration is required to show some firmness and clarify that it does not intend to continue to cave in to the Russian leadership on the Syrian issue, bearing in mind that Russia is a key ally of the regime in Damascus .

There is a clear imbalance in this issue: Russia is a powerful ally for Damascus that funds, supplies weapons, and prevents the Security Council from adopting resolutions. Russia opposes accountability for the regime, protects it against punishment for war crimes, defends its policy of deliberate starvation, siege, and bombardment with explosive barrels, and uses its influence with the United States to jointly sponsor a political process even after it undercuts its frame of reference - as Russia is confident that Washington will defer to its dictates, because the U.S. is averse to further involvement and just wants to distance itself from and shirk its responsibilities in Syria.

The Obama administration has no similar alliance with the Syrian opposition. It only supports it verbally but barely practically. Washington has diverged with its allies over the Syrian issue, both Arab and European. Its reputation now is one of betrayal, abandoning of allies, and backing down. The U.S. has lost the prestige of leadership and influence that comes with being a superpower. There is an opportunity today for President Obama to restore confidence in the U.S. and his country's prestige. But this requires him to make a decision. The opportunity is favorable because Russia has overplayed its hand, and gained itself a reputation for being the devil's ally who has nothing but contempt for human beings when it comes to its national interests.

Russia today appears as if it is above being held to account. It is boasting of its victory over "aging" America in Syria and the Middle East . But Vladimir Putin's Russia has put itself under siege both at home and in its surroundings. In effect, Russia is not immune to crises. The time is right for a serious and firm talk with Russia - if Obama really wants to bring about a change in the path of the Syrian tragedy. The talk, or the other firm message, must be addressed to Tehran . Ali Larijani, chairman of the Shura Council in Iran , commenting on statements by U.S. officials on the sanctions, said they were "arrogant opportunistic scoundrels," describing America as "a roaring old lion who is afraid to pounce."

The U.S. president can clarify to Iran that any new lifting of sanctions requires it to reform its foreign policy. U.S. law and the D'Amato Act require this, and this is what Barack Obama must affirm firmly and with determination, as he defends the engagement with Iran . He must put Syria at the forefront of what Tehran is required to change in its policies. The U.S. President has several tools and various options at his disposal to enact effective policies, if he wants to adopt different attitudes toward the Syrian disaster. If he has really decided that the Syrian crisis is now at the top of U.S. national security priorities, then he can notify Moscow and Tehran that Washington now perceives their role in Syria from the standpoint of U.S. national security. Indeed, their policies contribute to the growth of terrorism, the collapse of Syria , and the destabilization of neighboring countries.

As for the deterioration of the reputation and prestige of the U.S. in the Middle East and beyond, this is something that Barack Obama needs to remedy and repair. He will not able to do so unless he overturns his past practices, stand firmly and without hesitation, and show determination.

This is how President Obama can restore the moral leadership that the U.S. claims to have. Hiding behind fingers is not a policy befitting of the man who came to the White House on the back of promises that took the whole world by storm, but which today seem to have been nothing more than a mirage.

Translated from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi

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