The US Administration Adopts a New Policy on Syria

Weight has begun to find its way to the Obama Administration strategy known as the "light footprint", based on the principle of containment from afar in order to avoid playing a direct role in conflicts. The approval by the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) of the deployment of Patriot missiles at the border between Turkey and Syria indicates an important change in President Barack Obama's policy on the Syrian issue, in both its international and regional aspects, as well as in its domestic Syrian aspect. The means of containment have begun to take on the features of initiative and resolve instead of the retreat and hesitation that had been prevalent before Obama's reelection to a second term as President. Indeed, this is now a confident Administration that seems to be on its way to taking decisions that might be surprising. It will not intervene militarily, nor will it pay the price of such intervention in troops and funds, but the second term Administration seems prepared to take strategic decisions different from those that had characterized its policy towards Syria, as well as towards other issues that had proven too difficult, such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the battle between Islamist and secular forces in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, as well as in Iran. The second Obama Administration might depart from its isolationism on the international scene because the events in the Middle East are forcing it to do so. Prolonging the conflict in Syria would not only lead to thousands more civilian deaths, but also to the growth of extremist fundamentalist movements, to such an extent that they would regain a foothold in various places, and not solely in Syria. This represents a threat that could reach America and thrust the President to the forefront of the confrontation he seeks to avoid.

It may be true that the United States sees Syria as the equivalent of "Iran's own Vietnam", and would not mind for Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists to obliterate each other, which is why it may not object to the prolongation of the conflict. Indeed, there are some who consider that there are strategic reasons behind the West remaining silent about the Islamic Republic of Iran's violations of Security Council resolutions binding it under Chapter VII of the UN Charter not to export weapons, military equipment and fighters beyond its borders. Such reasons fall under merely watching the regime in Tehran destroy itself in Syria, instead of rescuing it from slipping into a "Vietnam-like" predicament there. The war in Iraq initiated by former President George W. Bush had boosted the Iranian regime's sense of strength and superiority. The war in Syria, of which the leaders of the regime in Tehran chose to make a fateful war for them, represents a slippery slope to the fall of this regime's arrogance, conceit and sense of strength.

The US President might not have to fulfill its pledge not to allow Iran to become a nuclear state by making use of military strength against it. To be sure, the combination of tough sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran and of its voluntary suicide in Syria may well achieve an unprecedented victory for the Obama Administration: inflicting defeat without intervening militarily. This is how Obama's doctrine would triumph over that of Bush, if the strategy of containment and implication were to succeed. Deploying Patriot missiles at the Turkish-Syrian border is a decision NATO took once the United States became prepared for it this week. Escalating support for the armed opposition with new kinds of weapons is a decision the country that provides such weapons was able to take when the United States became prepared to nudge it in agreement. Recognizing the Syrian National Coalition as representing Syria instead of the regime has successively taken place among European countries, so as to pave the way for similar recognition by the United States, with timing connected to the United States' own preparedness. All of this is new, and all of this is indicative of a new policy for the US Administration towards Syria.

The policy of exhaustion, attrition and prolongation perhaps remains one of the pillars of the United States' strategy. Yet the other pillar that has been activated is that of dealing the finishing blow to the regime in Damascus, as well as to the ambitions of the regime in Tehran. What the Iranians have been leaking about secret meetings with American officials may well be true, yet those might be meetings meant to give a final warning, rather than to strike a bargain of the kind sought by Tehran, which would include: maintaining its nuclear capabilities, recognizing a regional role for it beyond its borders, and saving its ally in Damascus.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his most senior aides and prominent figures of his government to Washington with the US President in his second term, so that they may inform those whom it may concern that "Putin is a very practical man" who trusts that together with Obama they "will find a way to work together". The headlines of the fundamental political message from Russia carried by its envoys about Syria are: "we were never friends with Bashar Al-Assad, nor do we consider him a friend; we do not support him and do not want him; in fact, we want him to leave or be driven out". Nevertheless, add the envoys, what Vladimir Putin will not back down on is that he will not be abandoning Bashar Al-Assad before agreeing on who would succeed him and what would happen after he leaves. To assert their point, the envoys refer to Putin's firm stance on Kosovo when he said, in the face of attempts to convince him to change his mind: "we would not be able to and cannot do this".

Developments in Egypt have come as a gift in the hands of Russian diplomacy, which flaunts them in the face of the Americans to say: look at what has come out of the Islamists whose rise to power you supported. Look at this deeply-rooted tendency to monopolize power in the Islamists' way of thinking. Is this the democracy you are promoting? Is this what you want in the Middle East? The Obama Administration is embarrassed. Indeed, the bomb Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi detonated by declaring himself absolute ruler, with powers above the judiciary and above the law, came only a few days after a campaign of praise and appreciation hailing him as an exceptional historical leader adopted by Washington at the state level and in the media. This had been due to the role played by Morsi in quelling the conflict and reaching a truce in Gaza. Indeed, the priority for the US Administration has always been the preservation of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel - and as long as Morsi protects it, he will remain above being held to account. Yet the vents on the ground have forced Washington to return to the policy and strategy drawing board, so as to account for that most important element and development in the Egyptian uprising since its emergence, namely: the Egyptian people's passion for power being responsibly exercised by the state, and their refusal to once again go down the path of monopoly.

There is clearly now a clash between secular society, which feels that the Obama Administration has abandoned it and struck a blow against fundamental principles and values, such as freedom, equality and the distribution of positions of power, on the one hand, and on the other the American desire to buy the loyalty of Islamist movements and to adopt a policy of containment and enticement. Modernists, intellectuals and secularists in Egypt accuse the Obama Administration of passionately embracing and rushing towards the Islamists, while neglecting the secularists, instead of standing at an equal distance between them. Some consider that ignorance was not the reason behind such a choice, but rather that the Islamists were purposely driven to power with the knowledge that they do not believe in the alternation of power, a secular state or legislation that would guarantee equality in citizenship. Others consider the policy of testing the Islamists to be based on expecting them to fail, and then to become more reliant and dependant on the United States, which holds the means of providing financial aid and offering them a lifeline.

It is unclear whether the confrontation in Egypt will lead to proving the Islamists' failure at governance, thus making them merely transitional, or whether the hijacking of the youth revolution by the Islamists will take a similar course to what happened in Iran, when the mullahs imposed their control on power with a religious autocracy that destroyed the secular state for thirty years. Clearly the modernists and secularists have decided not to commit suicide by "waiting for failure", rejecting the theory the West rushed to promote. And this requires the second Obama Administration to seriously reconsider its policies towards the secularists, who have proven their resolve not to bow down to monopoly and dictatorship, as well as their insistence on pluralism and on the right to choose freely, without dictates or the hijacking of constitutions. This is interesting, because the process of change in the Arab region still yearns for liberalism and modernity, and refuses for change to fall hostage to a new brand of authoritarianism that would dwarf it. It is interesting, because those who call for submitting to authoritarianism are today facing an uprising to uproot authoritarianism so as not to condemn democracy to its doom. That is precisely what the second Obama Administration should respect, adopting a policy that would oppose monopolizing decision-making and decision-making positions.

The second Obama Administration faces yet another challenge it will not be able to dodge. It is the reality of the overlapping between the decision of the Israeli government to build settlements that would obliterate the "two-state solution" and challenge international law on the one hand, and the fact that Palestine now has the ability to head to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute settlement-building as a war crime on the other. Perhaps such overlapping will drive the second Obama Administration to seriously engage this issue, making use of the means of pressure it holds in order to save the "two-state solution" from collapse. Indeed, the choice of the two states is today being tested. Nay, it is in fact the seriousness of the countries that claim it to be the only peaceful choice that is being tested, and the United States stands at the forefront of those countries.

There are indications that the US President is prepared to engage, but what he went through four years ago, when he was forced to back down and his efforts were thwarted, may well pour some cold water on such expectations. Yet in spite of this, new realities on the ground represent an opportunity for the US President to play the role of saving Israel from suicide. For one thing, the Israeli government moving forward with settlement-building, sanctions and occupation is no longer something the United States can keep under control. The fact that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has acquired the dimension of the ICC places it outside of the United States' control - and that changes the equation.

The second Obama Administration is today forced to get into discussions different from those it had adopted before the elections. The leaderships of major and minor countries are in turn employing a language different from the one they spoke before the elections. Russia's discourse on Syria started to change when Vladimir Putin realized that the policy of the United States had taken a new direction.

All have returned to the strategy drawing table against their will, because the march of change in the Arab region has proven that it is ongoing, and that its awakening may well regain its standing, after having been temporarily hijacked by the forces of monopoly and autocracy.