Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By LEE SMITH
It’s curious that a two-and-a-half-year-long conflict that has already cost 150,000 lives has virtually faded from the news. There is no more U.S. debate over Syria policy because the matter has been decided—Obama will not aid the rebels. But it is here that we see everything we need to know about the administration’s Iran policy and regional strategy. By ensuring that Assad remains in power to hand over his chemical weapons, until at least the next Syrian presidential election, Obama protected Iranian and Russian interests in Syria while undermining those of his own country and its allies, including Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, as well as Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. The administration has pushed Turkey and the Gulf states to stop supporting al Qaeda-affiliated rebel units and other extremist groups inside Syria. That would make sense—if only the White House were helping to build a more moderate alliance to take down Assad.
But Obama doesn’t really want to topple Assad because that would suggest to Tehran that all his talk of multi-polarity is in bad faith. Why would the Iranians negotiate with the administration if they already had proof that Obama doesn’t really want to integrate them into a new regional order, but just wants to defeat them on behalf of his allies under the existing order?
Unfortunately for Obama’s fantasies of multipolarity, it’s still a world of states primarily driven by interests. Because of the Syrian civil war, Jordan and Turkey have serious refugee problems. It’s not that their governments necessarily see Assad’s loss as their gain, or his triumph as their tragedy, but that the refugee crisis threatens to destabilize their ruling parties and their countries. Obama’s vision of a multipolar region is little help. An accommodation, for instance, between Syrian opposition parties and a man who slaughtered many thousands of Sunnis is unlikely to send the millions of Syrians in exile back home. Only the defeat of Assad and new moderate Sunni leadership in Damascus will end the crisis.
The White House’s handling of Israel during the Syrian conflict is even more instructive. Time and again, administration officials have leaked information about Israeli strikes on Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah targets to the press. If the administration is hoping to bolster its credentials as an impartial actor that doesn’t take sides, Iran may appreciate the gesture but Israel surely doesn’t. For Israel, the transfer of strategic weapons from Syria to Hezbollah constitutes a threat to national security.
Obama himself seems to run hot and cold on the logic of multi-polarity. Ideologically he may be committed to a world where superpowers don’t run things. But for the moment he still wants to force his vision on, say, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Ironically, he still wants his allies to march to his tune. White House supporters have argued that the Israelis and Saudis finally have no choice but to do what the United States wants. But that’s simply not true. In recent weeks there have been reports that both are exploring other possible partners, namely Russia and China. Neither Moscow nor Beijing has a blue-water navy, to be sure, but the U.S. order of battle in the Middle East is not the only possible configuration. Russia—which has proven in Syria that it stands by its friends, with arms, diplomacy, and political cover—might provide accommodations that assure both Jerusalem’s and Riyadh’s security needs.
Allies, after all, are not simply products of power; they are also its signature. The United States owes much of its might to the nature and number of its alliances. Obama seems not to understand that if you really believe in a multi-polar world, if you treat your allies like anyone else, if you treat them the way you do your adversaries, then they may make different choices. He seems not to see that in forging a realignment of the region, it is the United States that is most likely to be realigned, friendless, doubted, and diminished.
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