With a divided US Senate approving Chuck Hagel as the secretary of defence, and Secretary of State John Kerry embarking on his first overseas visit to the region, US President Barack Obama has completed his national security team. He seems to be ready to tackle various crises and revisit some of the urgent issues that were put on hold during the presidential campaign.
Of all the crises, the Syrian conflict merits the most urgency. In my article titled In Search of Obama’s Middle East Legacy (Gulf News, February 18), I argued that “the Obama administration’s handling of the Syrian debacle is abysmal … It is ironic that after 70,000 were killed in Syria, after extremist elements associated with Al Qaida established a foothold there, and despite fears about Syria’s stockpile of chemical and biological weapons falling in the wrong hands and Russia upping the ante in Syria, the Obama administration has not led the international community to do anything about the Bashar Al Assad regime …”
Furthermore, “all those challenges have not convinced the US administration to arm selected elements of the Syrian opposition. It emerged during a hearing in the US Senate that the White House had vetoed former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former secretary of defence Leon Panetta along with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey who supported a plan last year to arm carefully vetted Syrian rebels.
However, the White House preferred to focus on the political front to help build the opposition.
But it seems there is a pivot in the White House today regarding Syria. Lately, many important developments some with worrying signs have emerged regarding Syria. For the first time, the Syrian regime is willing to negotiate with “the armed rebels”, as Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Mua’alem acknowledged in Moscow, while Syrian troops continue to fight terrorism.
But the most significant development was the Washington Post reporting last week the possibility of the Obama administration’s willingness to revisit the issue of supplying certain elements of Syrian opposition with technical assistance. The plan is to supply them with armour and armed vehicles and possibly provide military training, but withhold arms in order to nudge the course of the conflict and bring to an end the Bashar Al Assad regime without US military interference.
The Syrian rebels have been disillusioned and frustrated over the last two years and feel abandoned by the international community, which refused to arm them because it feared that the weapons would fall into the wrong hands, particularly the jihadist groups.
But the change of heart in Washington and in other capitals seems to have been precipitated after, as the Post puts it, the conclusion by the US administration and its key allies “that there is little immediate chance for a negotiated political settlement with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad”.
Furthermore, according to the Post, “the Obama administration is moving toward a major policy shift on Syria that could provide rebels there with equipment such as body armour and armoured vehicles, and possibly military training, and could send humanitarian assistance directly to Syria’s opposition political coalition”.
This reversal of course by the US administration was because “western officials have …acknowledged that the opposition coalition is unlikely to quickly develop a governing infrastructure or attract significant support from fence-sitting Syrian minorities and Al Assad supporters”. Clearly, this represents a major shift in US stance regarding Syria, and a departure of the White House position of limiting its assistance to the Syrian rebels and refugees to non-lethal assistance alongside $385 million in humanitarian aid through international institutions.
This coincided with a report in the New York Times last week, quoting unidentified US official confirming that “Saudi Arabia has financed a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and quietly funnelled them to anti-government fighters in Syria”, to break the stalemate.
Meanwhile, there has been progress on the diplomatic front between the Americans and Russians over Syria.
Kerry met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Berlin, and with representatives of the Syrian opposition in Rome last Thursday. The Syrian rebels changed course and decided to attend the meeting after assurances by US Vice-President Joe Biden and Kerry, where they asked for “qualitative military support” from the major powers to put an end to the bloody two-year conflict.
But the ominous development is the spillover effects of the Syrian conflict. It is provoking sectarian strife between the majority Sunnis and the minority Shiites in the region.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s warning of a civil war in Iraq and Lebanon following the ouster of Al Assad’s regime, is a clarion call to Sunni Islamists in both countries to stay out of the Syrian morass. It is also indicative of Al Maliki’s determination to do Iran’s bidding in shouldering and supporting its ally, Bashar Al Assad.
This was echoed by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who in his TV appearance last Wednesday aimed at dispelling rumours of his demise and illness and being taken to Iran for treatment. Nasrallah looked pale and subdued, but went out of his way to warn of a “fitnah”. He advised against misjudging or miscalculating the might of his powerful group, which has been the de-facto ruler of Lebanon. On Iran’s behest, it is involved directly in the Syrian conflict by siding with the regime to help crush the Syrian rebellion.
Navigating the Syrian maze won’t be easy or pleasant because of its complicated and myriad issues and the involvement of domestic, regional and international players and competing projects. The Syrian people deserve better. It seems that the prevailing assumption in the West and Russia is to deal with Syria differently, to arm the rebels to achieve some kind of a break through to break the stalemate with new facts on the ground.
Or as the strategist Sa’ad Mehio says in his blog, “War as means to peace…” to avoid a long and messy war.
In the final analysis, the Syrian people who have been paying dearly for this conflict and civil war should not be abandoned. It is incumbent on the international community to act in unison to end their suffering that has lasted for too long and left a stain on the faces of the reticent Arab and civilised world alike.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the chairman of the political science department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/docshayji