THE BLOG

All Is Not Lost for Obama in Egypt and Syria

The Egyptian imbroglio and the Syrian stalemate represent two of the major foreign policy failures of President Obama. These are failures because the two crises presented the United States (which has always complained of its negative perceptions in the Muslim world) with an excellent chance to repair its image. An extremely cautious approach on the carnage in Syria complicated the situation and indifference on the Egyptian coup and subsequent crackdown on protestors has not helped the cause either. All is not lost yet. Leading from the front in Syria and taking a firm stance in favor of democracy in Egypt could turn the wave.

American reluctance to arm the rebels fighting the most oppressive regime in Syria proved a major roadblock for the opposition. While the Assad regime is still bankrolled by Iran and its killing machine is aided and abetted by Hezbollah militants, the rebels have failed to capitalize on the early victories. The Assad regime, which has long lost its legitimacy (if there ever was one), has been emboldened by U.S. reticence. It might never be able to gain control of the rebel strongholds -- bombing and gassing of thousands of civilians has laid the foundation of its ultimate fall -- but Iranian backers and the latter's proxies in the region have assured that it latches on to power for some time.

True that there were many bottlenecks. Russia and China's shameful role in blocking the UNSC resolutions on Syria is a case in point. It is also a fact that the American public is wary of another armed intervention. Still, a more proactive approach without a boots-on-the-ground policy would have yielded much better results. American lawmakers from both sides of the fence have long recommended greater involvement in the conflict.

An early intervention (whatever small might have been its scale) and support of the FSA would not only have resulted in toppling the authoritarian regime but also keeping the unwanted elements at bay. Egypt's case is much simpler than Syria. The democratic transition was a welcome sign. The Morsi regime did make some mistakes such as not taking the opposition on-board. Still, it was start of a democratic tradition, one that takes time to take hold in a country that was previously unaccustomed to the norm. Any attempts by the military to topple the regime should have drawn a strong condemnation by the US, which was not the case.

The perception of a secret approval -- or even a support as some Egyptians believe--for the military coup has only tarnished the image of the US. Military aid to Egypt has not been suspended on the pretext that the void will be filled by the Arabian coffers. This is not true either. The Egyptian military cannot operate without the US arms and, more importantly, without the semblance of approval from Washington that it now perpetuates in the populace. US could have played a leading role in forcing the military junta to return power to the civilians. Much blood has been shed on the Egyptian streets and the hopes of democracy returning should not turn into an elusive dream.

There is still hope though. There are two things Obama can do on Egypt and Syria. Reports of chemical attacks by the Syrian regime, which has killed hundreds of civilians, should raise an alarm. This, coupled with other atrocities and the worsening human crisis, provide the chance to take an active role by enlisting the help of the European Union, Turkey and Qatar. Imposing a no-fly zone will do enough to curtail the loss of civilian life. Air strikes on chemical weapon sites in Syria could help prevent further use by the Assad regime. There is an obvious concern on part of the US officials about future strategy on Syria but the harrowing tales of civilian death and agony should not be ignored anymore. Obama still appears to be cautious but once reports of chemical attacks are confirmed; it will be time for action.

The same goes for Egypt where an immediate blocking of military aid and a vocal support for democracy could turn the tide. The time to get on right side of the fence has not passed yet and the Obama administration could save future embarrassment by choosing the right path.

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