01/11/2013 12:09 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2013

An Ambiguous Policy by the New US Administration towards Damascus and Tehran

All indications point that the foreign policy of the second Barack Obama Administration will carry two aspects, one implicit and one explicit, moving together and in parallel in order to satisfy and contain radical contradictions within the US public opinion. Indeed, the majority of the American people does not want to get involved in the wars of others, and is not willing to pay the bill for military intervention, either in funds or in US troops. Yet at the same time, the American people do not want terrorism or Islamic extremism to arrive at their shores. They also want the United States to retain its status as the world's preeminent superpower. Such contradictions will be translated by President Barack Obama's second Administration in a strategy of firmness, force, military superiority and covert intervention in secret operations led by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and special divisions in the White House, together with Departments concerned with national security, as well as the Department of the Treasury. In parallel to this, the Departments which traditionally shape foreign policy, i.e. the Department of State and the Department of Defense, will adopt an apparent policy of rejecting wide-ranging direct military intervention and engage in the diplomacy of finding the way out.

From a certain perspective, such a strategy seems logical because it meets the wishes of the Americans, and because it brings together firmness and flexibility. Yet the danger of such a strategy and the bumps in the road it faces cannot be overstated, particularly when it is applied in the Middle East. Thus, for example, it encourages those in power in the countries of the region to adopt policies based on intelligence relations and secret military partnership with the United States, instead of opting for transparency during this transitional phase in which their people are demanding that power not be monopolized. Such partnership between the US Administration and the governments concerned will make the relationship of people in the Middle East with the United States revert to one of doubt and distrust. It will also lead to mobilizing enmity towards the United States, not just among the ranks of extremists, but also among those of moderates. In addition to this, the method of pleasing and finding ways out that will characterize the apparent US foreign policy will not lead to real solutions, but rather will mislead the regimes that oppress their people and will inflame their militaristic tendencies, as they would come to believe that the United States has decided for their fundamental relationship to be a covert security relationship, and that this represents a key for them to arrogantly remain in power.

The second Obama Administration must not fall into the trap of its own declared liberalism and covert conservatism. It is required not to go to extremes in the two aspects of its strategy, i.e. the hidden and the apparent. The basic trio we know President Obama wants in the main traditional centers of foreign policy consists of: John Kerry at the Department of State, Chuck Hagel at the Department of Defense and John Brennan at the CIA. The first and the second would form the pillars of flexibility, dialogue and way-out policy, at least on the basis of each of their backgrounds, and not necessarily in terms of similar continuity in their new positions. The third should remain of the same "breed" - a man determined to fight terrorism anywhere and by any means, regardless of the complaints of those who call for the rule of law and human rights. The main feature of the new policy, as suggested by President Obama's choice of such a team, will be that US troops will no longer engage in costly wars nor wage their wars directly. Instead, there will be a reinforcement of secret so-called "special operations", which are nothing new to the US military and civilian institutions, neither in terms their military operations nor through others, but which will be occupying a stronger, broader and more central position under the second Obama Administration.

In other words, secret assassinations and secret killings - directly or by remote control - will become an ordinary matter, bearing in mind that this had been nearly illegal in the past, before the 9/11 terrorists attacks. This means that the use of unmanned drones will occupy an essential position in foreign policy. Such means will be used in the qualitatively new war under Obama against Al-Qaeda and similar groups, and in fact the aspect of firmness in Obama's policy will be focused on combating "violence" or "terrorism" wherever it may be. This is where the resemblance appears between President Obama's policy and that of former President George W. Bush. In fact, this perhaps represents the broad lines of US foreign policy regardless of who resides in the White House.

Those who advise Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and are in charge of his propaganda campaign have interpreted this policy as representing the means of salvation for the Damascus regime, which has become party to a civil war and has lost its credibility as the country's leadership. Assad is now being told that his safety net is an American one par excellence, because the Obama Administration wants partners who would be able to wage such a major secret battle against the prominent figures of violence and terrorism - Al-Qaeda or others like it. He is being told that his superior capabilities in terms of the use of force and his broad intelligence on the issue of the Jihadists who went through him in Damascus on their way to Iraq to inflict defeat on American troops represent valuable ammunition, and in fact a veritable treasure, that he could use with the Americans. This is why Assad said in his speech last week that he wants to deal with the masters. This is why he assumed that President Barack Obama's priority is a war which he can fight alongside him.

The Syrian President considered the nomination of Kerry, Hagel and Brennan to represent a way out for him. Indeed, Brennan has a history of combating terrorism by any means necessary, which has led to accusations against him of making use of torture to obtain information - something which Brennan has denied. This is in addition to his role in the use of unmanned drones, in a program that has been tested in Yemen in particular, which has perhaps led Assad to consider himself to represent a natural ally that it will not be easy to dispense with, if Obama's policy truly is one of crushing terrorist elements in Syria as his predecessor did in Iraq.

Kerry himself is an old friend of Assad's, and one convinced that the latter is a man of reform and his wife Asma a model of modernity. He represents the opposite of the approach of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton towards Syria and the Assad family. This is why President Assad has breathed a sigh of relief and assumed that Kerry at the Department of State would represent his deliverance and would save him from the policy demanding that he step down. He may well be disappointed at the end of the day, but not making it clear will only reinforce his illusions and make of him a man who trusts that he is above being held to account, a partner in the war on terror and the man America wants to keep in power. Hagel only concerns Assad from the perspective of Iran, as the nominee for Secretary of Defense is known to be opposed to not just military action against Iran, but also the United States imposing bilateral sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran - which radically contradicts Barack Obama's policy towards Iran, based on containment through sanctions and isolation.

Tehran and Damascus are purposely ignoring Hagel's conditions for dialogue and for reaching an understanding with Iran, because the main headline of his stances suits them. Indeed, the direct engagement called for by Hagel in his book, "America: Our Next Chapter", has essential conditions, as he states that lifting sanctions and diplomatic recognition would only be on the table "if Iran gives up its nuclear armament program" (and this is not going to happen), "ends its support of terrorist organizations", "recognizes Israel" and "engages in a more constructive policy in Iraq". The burden of clarification falls on President Barack Obama and on his new team, whoever he may have in mind for the distribution of roles between figures of flexibility and figures of resolve in his foreign policy.

Indeed, if Obama's message to Damascus and Tehran is that he and his team will not hold them to account because they represent indispensable partners in the war against Jihadists in and outside of Syria, such an American foreign policy would be either misleading, and would thus cause more killing under illusions of partnership, and would thus form a terrible basis for America's relationship with the people of the region. This does not apply exclusively to Syria. Indeed, the message to Tehran finds a resounding echo in Iraq, which is going through a fateful phase that threatens of division and bloody civil war - a war which it would be better for the United States not to take part in creating, after having done what it did in Iraq.

At the nuclear level, what the second Obama Administration should admit to - regardless of how inconvenient that may be for it - is the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran will never give up its nuclear programs no matter what. All policies towards Tehran - whether engagement, arrangement or way-out - must be based on this reality. Even the impression that the second Obama Administration is in no hurry to allow for the armament of the Syrian opposition, or to confront Russia diplomatically because of the Syrian issue, is an impression that comes at an exorbitant cost, as it encourages military operations that slaughter civilians and multiply the number of those without shelter and food in Syria. Procrastination is not in the interest of the United States because it too will lead to multiplying the strength of Jihadists inside Syria and outside of it. Indeed, the period of getting distracted with the inauguration and with forming the new team of American foreign policy will be a blood-spattered period in Syria and in Iraq, and will threaten Jordan and Lebanon. Beware of America's message representing a sanction, a free pass and a go-ahead for repression, violence and military settlement under the banner of partnership in the face of Jihadists and the like, as this would cause a backlash against America.

America the bold, the just and the determined, as President Obama wants it to be, must take the convictions of the leaders of the second Administration regarding Palestine and Israel as a basis for its action in the Middle East. Hagel and Kerry have spoken of the two-state solution as being in the national interest of the United States - and so has Obama. If they truly are able to engage, convince and reach historical peaceful solutions, this is where they can start - not in an arena that could make of the United States the partner of tyrants and their perpetual killing machine.