THE BLOG
02/21/2014 08:39 am ET Updated Apr 23, 2014

Signs of a Shift in Washington's Attitude on the Syrian Crisis

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What has made Russia and China consent to a role for the UN Security Council in Yemen, making the latter a "success story" for international cooperation, while at the same insisting firmly on obstructionism on Syria in the Security Council, by wielding a dual veto, three times so far? Why have the two countries, which have the veto power in the Security Council, not objected to a role for the latter in Yemen, on the ground that they had been duped in Libya because of NATO's intervention there, when the Yemeni crisis predates the Syrian conflict?

History shall answer these questions, and hold Russia and China accountable for the catastrophic outcome in Syria compared to that in Yemen. Nor will history be kind to the United States , which has washed its hands clean of Syria. So much so that it has allowed both the regime and extremism to triumph over the moderates and innocents, who wanted nothing more than reform when they took to the streets three years ago.

Protests in the public squares demanding change and reform in Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand, and elsewhere have used Tahrir Square in Egypt as their model. The efforts to draft new constitutions in the Arab region and beyond take Tunisia's achievements as their model. Yemen has turned from a classical state that knew only strict centralization to a complex state that espouses and embraces federalism, which is something that planners are thinking about in some other countries now. Only Libya is still unable to recover, although Libya received the biggest assistance to help it get rid of its tyrant during the Arab wave of change. As for Syria , well, this country is a testament to the miserable failure of the local, regional, and international conscience.

It is being now said that U.S. President Barack Obama is ready to listen to advice and strategic options that would replace his uncompromising pragmatism. It is being said that Obama now understands that his strategy based on self-dissociation from the Syrian tragedy has empowered both the Neo-Jihadists and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- and his allies, Russia, China, Iran, and Hezbollah. Both sides, that is the Salafist extremist axis and the axis of quadripartite extremism fighting in the Syrian conflict believe they are about to win, something that seems to be taken into account in U.S. calculations. For this reason perhaps, Washington went back to the policy drawing board.

Moscow and Beijing have taken note, but they continue to wager that the U.S. president will not deviate from non-involvement in the Syrian crisis, no matter what happens. Tehran and Hezbollah have also taken note, but their wager is on long-term patience and the reputation the U.S. has acquired for itself for its "mood swings."

Clearly, Washington is now unhappy about how Moscow has been dealing with the Syrian issue, and the extent at which it has taken advantage of American attitudes to further its interests and the interests of its camp, instead of building on the partnership that emerged over the dismantling of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, in conjunction with Barack Obama backing down on his countdown for a military strike against Syria.

Clearly, the Obama administration has come to realize that the current dynamic makes its policy of self-dissociation and mutual exhaustion a bad investment, and a costly failure. Bashar al-Assad, whom Obama called on to step down, has grown stronger and more attached to power. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to al-Nusra Front, has spawned offshoots, swelled in size, and is now more determined to fulfill its designs. The moderate opposition has been weakened, and is now fighting along two fronts, one against the regime and one against the Neo-Jihadists. Russia and Iran are winning in Syria , while the U.S. reputation, influence, and clout are in decline, even among allies.

This reality is not conducive to U.S. national interests. Even in the best-case scenario, the proponents of U.S. isolationism and "Obamism" cannot argue that the policy of self-dissociation has succeeded in asserting long-term American interests in the Middle East and in the international balance of power. In the worst-case scenario, terrorism might return to the U.S. through the gateway of Syria.

For this reason, the Obama administration has returned to the policy-drafting board, and through the U.S. press, has revived talk abut military options in the form of arming the Syrian opposition and imposing no-fly zones using unconventional methods.

No one expects President Obama to upend his policy and directly intervene in Syria militarily. The Obama administration could study options for a no-fly zone, but its calculations will not be based on deploying U.S. troops to Syria. This is a foregone conclusion unless an extraordinary development is to occur. Most likely, there could be a no-fly zone enforced by unusual measures that cripple part of the Syrian air force's ability to continue to pound the moderate opposition and civilians in the Syrian cities and villages.

What is new in the White House's political discourse is the initiation of a practical intelligence coordination with the countries that back the Syrian opposition, to send the latter advanced arms shipments including man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), which had helped tip the military equation in the Afghan conflict in the 1980s. The meeting of the Saudi, Emirati, Qatari, Turkish, and American intelligence services in Washington recently signaled a shift in the U.S. attitude on the Syrian question.

This was accompanied by several measures and developments: Salim Idriss was sacked from the command of the armed Syrian opposition; more determination was shown at the UN to push for humanitarian aid corridors across the border; public blame was laid on Russia for the failure of Geneva 2, which seeks a transitional political process in Syria; and Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was put in charge of the Syrian issue, as far as Saudi intelligence is concerned, replacing Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

President Obama's upcoming visit to Riyadh late next month has brought important momentum to the Syrian issue in its local-security, and regional-political dimensions. Riyadh has adopted tough new attitudes against its citizens who take part in the fighting alongside the Neo-Jihadist Salafist extremists. Riyadh then replaced Prince Bandar bin Sultan with Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a development that carries extremely important implications and connotations.

One of the most important messages these measures represent is that Saudi Arabia is determined to have a serious and qualitative partnership with the U.S. in the war on terror in Syria. The goal is to turn the tables on the Syrian-Russian deliberate misinterpretation of Geneva 2, whose purpose Syria and Russia wanted to change from forming a transitional governing body to fighting terrorism.

Another indirect message is addressed to the moderate wing in Iran, stating that Saudi policy intends to head off any attempt to exploit the Syrian ordeal to foment Sunni-Shiite discord. However, this does not mean leaving the arena open to the axis consisting of the regime, Iran, Russia, China, and Hezbollah to achieve more military gains on the ground, but rather the opposite. What the shift in U.S. attitudes indicates is that there is no choice left but to escalate militarily to impose a political solution, against the other axis's mobilization of its capabilities to consolidate its military successes.

U.S. military calculations, according to informed sources and insiders, anticipate that a period of 18 months is needed to weaken Assad structurally -- if Russia continues to supply him with arms and Iran and Hezbollah to fight alongside his regime.

Washington favors persuading Russia to radically alter its relationship with Assad. However, it has finally concluded that Moscow is manipulating the U.S., and would not abandon Assad in any circumstances.

Washington has found itself suddenly in a confrontational posture with Moscow, after turning a blind eye for too long. Among the main causes are the current developments in Ukraine. Washington found itself in need to take advantage of the Winter Olympics to put pressure on Moscow to change its policy, escalating both in the UN's corridors and coordinated intelligence activities.

Moscow has decided to take a step back and agreed to take part in negotiations over a humanitarian resolution, to be put to a vote possibly on Friday. The resolution would be the first on Syria since the dual Russian-Chinese veto wielded three times - with the exception of the resolution on dismantling the chemical weapons -- if adopted and if it passes the test of the fourth veto. Russia's approval of a UN Security Council resolution on Syria -- if this happens -- could be a tactical step or a qualitative one. Most likely, it will be a tactical one akin to losing a battle in order to win the war.

Inducing a qualitative shift in Russian attitudes certainly requires a serious and consistent shift in Washington's policies on Syria. This in turn requires a clear decision at the level of the U.S. president himself, not just at the level of his Secretary of State.

The other essential element in U.S. -- and Saudi -- policy to bring about a change in Moscow's attitudes is China. Indeed, China has contributed to radically strengthening Russia's hand in Syria. China hid behind its strategic alliance with Moscow, and allowed Russia to lead on Syria, flouting its economic relations with both Washington and Riyadh, and ignoring the humanitarian tragedy in Syria.

It is time for a serious squaring off with China, using the language of interests and strategic realities. It is no longer acceptable to exempt Beijing from accountability for its attitudes on Syria. Both China and Russia have contributed to the deterioration of the situation in Syria, and to its transformation into a crumbling state and an arena for the resurgence of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, who are now able to threaten the stability of neighboring countries.

Both China and Russia left the U.S. to foot the bill for the war on al-Qaeda in Yemen -- and before that in Afghanistan -- without contributing. This could be one of the reasons why on the Yemeni issue, China and Russia have overcome their anger over the "insult" they received in Libya, but have brought this anger over to the Syrian issue at the Security Council.

Both China and Russia have been extremely hostile to the so-called Arab Spring, perhaps fearing that protests and regime-changing uprisings would soon spread to Chinese and Russian cities. They both deliberately resolved to push to the fore the military option in Syria, to take revenge on the Arab Spring and prevent the proliferation of demonstrations.

Tahrir Square in Egypt -- and before it Martyrs Square in Lebanon during the Cedar Revolution -- has now reached Kiev, Bangkok, and Caracas. In Independence Square in Kiev, a translated version of the Egyptian documentary The Square, directed by Jehane Noujaim and produced by Karim Amer, was screened, as an inspiration for change and to reaffirm the ability to replace the need for authoritarian leaders with the need for conscience.

Jehane Noujaim has been nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature. It is a great achievement that Jehane is the only Arab woman who has received a nomination in this category. Equally remarkable is the fact that she is one of two women candidates nominated in the Academy Awards for 2014 for documentary features -- the other candidate being Yemeni-Scottish director Sarah Ishaq in the documentary short category for her film Karama Has No Walls.

Indeed, the squares that demanded change, reform, and the right to protest have won the confidence of people worldwide. The Square will triumph over the military field, no matter how differently things might seem to be.

Translated from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi

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