In the US, the administration’s Middle East policy is coming under greater and greater criticism. It’s not just Republicans or right wingers doing the criticizing. The critique of Obama runs the full gamut of the political spectrum. In fact, the only place where the president appears to be getting passing grades is on the Israeli and American far left. For the rest of us (the vast majority) Obama’s lack of direction on the Syrian civil war has been both alienating and bewildering. Likewise, the Secretary of State’s insistence that, in the midst of this American vacuum, Israel should be negotiating with the Palestinians, has been equally confusing. For the large political center, the idea that an end-of-conflict agreement with the PA can be reached in the next four of five months is an absurdity. With Iraq and Lebanon at the explosive abyss, the future of the East Bank in a state of constant mystery, and the Iranian nuclear negotiations at a point of permanent enrichment, many wonder where American “leadership” is taking a region already at war. But for now it is Syria that has come under the severest of scrutiny by Obama’s many critics.
Two years ago Obama declared that “Assad must go”. But while the region waited, the president never put any “skin into the game”. By default, US policy was leased out to Turkey and the Gulf states. The moderates in Syria (civil society and democracy activists) were shunted aside by a constant flow of arms and fighters with a distinct jihadist bent. This lack of a clear democratic vision with the means to back it up is one of the great tragedies of the last seventy years of US foreign policy. From the very beginning of the Syrian civilian uprising, the genuine desire for freedom and a liberal constitutional order had become the Arabs’ greatest hour. The immense bravery of the young people risking all only to be shot down as if human life were less important than a rabid dog’s, inspired the entire world. The entire world, that is, but not apparently the White House, the Kremlin, the Gulf states, or Iran.
Russia continued to play the obstructionist role because the US continued to play the Cold War. The sad fact of Obama’s Syrian legacy is the continued US support for the 1945 military division of Europe and the “old game” of isolating Russia. While Hilary Clinton touted the so-called “reset” with Russia, Obama failed to follow through. It was the Syrian democratic forces who most suffered from this outdated policy. Meanwhile, the Assad regime painted the conflict in strict sectarian hues. The “family dictator” was quite content to rally his Alawi community behind a veil of pure fear. Of course this is not hard to do in the Middle East. Minority communities have always faced existential choices when the prospect of lost political power reared its ugly head. The Sephardic Jewish community of Israel understood this sad truth far better than their Ashkenazi brothers and sisters. They had been witness to it on numerous occasions. Although the Jews have never held power in the Levant since biblical times, the Sephardic refugees were the big losers in Israel’s War of Independence.
For the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, the Syrian uprising had absolutely nothing to do with democratic reform. On the contrary, for the monarchs Syria became a proxy war to fight the Iranians and roll back Persian-Shia encroachment into Arab-Sunni lands. From western Iraq to the southern suburbs of Beirut, Saudi strategy mirrored Assad’s. As weapons flowed in the sectarian aspect of the conflict, the existential nature of Arab politics became ascendant. The Arab’s finest hour was in dire need of a champion (it still is). Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council (representing democratic reform and liberal constitutionalism) never really got their act together. They could not persuade the Alawi, the Kurds, the Christians or the wealthy Sunnis that a democratic Syria was indeed possible.
As the situation deteriorated, the Obama administration watched from the sidelines, more fearful of US election results than of the one great chance for Arab democracy. I know there are many cynics who don’t believe in Arab or Syrian democracy. But I feel this is grave mistake. Sooner or later there must be a political solution to the Syrian civil war. With the economic sanctions in place, Assad and Iran cannot win the war. And no one in the region can live with the prospect of a Sunni jihadist state or complete balkanization. A decentralized federal Syrian state is the only solution. But somehow the Obama administration must convince the Russians and the Saudis that a democratic Syria is in their best interests. Most importantly, the linkage between the Iranian nuclear negotiations and the Sunni-Shia war for the Levant must become a paramount priority. If a comprehensive nuclear agreement is reached while the Syrian war rages, Iran’s enhanced position across Arab lands could expand the war to involve fighters from the entire Sunni Muslim world.
But what will be the nature of the linkage? The Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khameni, will never accept a democratic Syria without a direct route to Hezbollah in Lebanon and a connection to the Alawi in Syria. Iran plays the existential politics of the endangered minority better than anyone. But a democratic Syria must encompass an end to the fighting across the entire region. In fact, any envisioned end to the Syrian war must have an Iraqi and Lebanese component. That means that the Shia and Sunni communities in both these countries understand that the existential nature of Middle East politics has indeed come to an end. Without firm national, regional and international structures to protect minority communities across the Levant, peace will never be possible. This must include Israel as well. For the Jewish state cannot be left out in the cold. Any regional deal which leaves Israel isolated and facing a combined Arab-Persian threat (while far-fetched at the moment, for Iran not out of the realm of possibility) could cause a very large explosion. Yet these very protections are the nature of the linkage. Without a democratic understanding of the rights of citizenship for minority communities, the existential nature of ethnic and sectarian conflict will continue unabated.
How the Syrian war ends will be crucial to the regional state system for decades to come. This outcome should be of utmost concern to both the US, Russia, Turkey, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration proceeds as if all these issues are somehow separate from each other. This myopia has alienated everyone in the region except Iran and the radical Sunni jihadists. Is it any wonder that so many of America’s Middle East allies look askance at the president’s policy? The trick for the Obama administration is to completely isolate Iran and the Sunni jihadists from a flow of weapons and any kind of political support. Russia must be consulted and brought in as a partner. The best way to accomplish this is through a regional peace plan that essentially outlaws hegemony and the direct prospect of invasion. Europe must be free of military division and a hostile alliance structure. Just as Iranian hegemonic designs must be kept in check (or anyone else’s), NATO and the EU must not be used as weapons to isolate Russia. Obama needs a Russian summit meeting to discuss the future of NATO, missile defense, the Ukraine and the future of a Middle East anti-hegemonic, zero-enrichment, nuclear-weapons-free zone. With three years left to his presidency, Obama could still make something of his Syrian legacy. Or he can continue on his current path, which will bring the Nobel Prize winning president a most ignoble legacy indeed.