The Region Scrutinizes Obama’s Decision on Syria

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President Obama announced on Saturday that he would seek Congressional approval for a military strike against Syria to punish the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. Regional commentators have generally supported or condemned the reversal of America’s non-involvement along predictable sectarian and political divides. Meanwhile, the Iranians and the Israelis are doing their own saber rattling, threatening a wider conflagration.

Calling Obama’s decision an instance of ‘genuine leadership’ and a chance for the Syrian leader to rethink his strategy, the Khaleej Times editorial is certainly one of the few dailies that tried to put the president’s announcement in a good light: “The U.S. president’s resolve to seek Congress support before taking action against Syria has surprised many. Though he has, in principle, decided to act against the regime in Damascus for its alleged gassing of people last month, his decision to hold on for a while is genuine leadership….Apart from his humility in passionately pleading his case before the legislators, Obama took a strong stand about the United Nations Security Council….This period of respite for President Bashar Al Assad is a rare opportunity to come up with a strategy, which should see a peaceful transition and enable the Syrians to restart a new life. This will help more than two million people in diaspora as well as millions more who are forced to live in a state of despair.”

Others were not as optimistic in their appraisal of Obama’s decision, with the Daily Star (Lebanon) editorial leading the charge in characterizing the announcement a victory for Assad: “If Obama believed in the notion of obtaining congressional approval for a military strike, which is a commendable position, why didn’t he push for such a move before launching the political and psychological preparations for a strike via the media?…In the final analysis, Obama has given Assad an unexpected political victory and permitted many around the world to mobilize against a military strike, for all manner of reasons. The lack of coordination with Syrian rebel leaders has already shaken up their fragile ranks as they wonder exactly what the White House is up to….Assad is the only winner in this puzzling and disappointing episode, whether Obama meant it or not.”

There are also those who argue against the rationale for action in the first place. In an article for Gulf News, Adel Safty make the argument that the U.S. and its allies lack any “legal or moral grounds to hit Syria…. There is no reason to take the allegations against Al Assad’s regime at face value — with Washington as the only and so far unverifiable source. After all governments are not above what Noam Chomsky called the ‘engineering of consent.’ It was used with deadly efficacy to sell the invasion of Iraq to the American people, with the eager cooperation of the elite media….As for the moral argument, it is fair to say that Washington does not have a monopoly over moral values in international relations and civic virtues in politics. The list of evidentiary materials is long.”

However, judging from the commentaries and the editorials in the Saudi dailies, Riyadh seems to believe that the problem with the American response is not whether it has a basis to attack; rather why it has not done so sooner: “It is extremely important that the U.S. intelligence community gets it right this time, and that the Syria chemical weapons assessment is accurate. There is, for example, the argument that the Syrian regime had no need to use chemical weapons to kill over 1,400 civilians since killing civilians in large numbers is what it has been doing every day, using conventional weapons, aerial bombardments and mass executions….Perhaps the biggest question is why now. The UN states that to date, over 100,000 civilians have been killed in the Syrian civil war, but only now, after a fraction of that figure is killed with chemical weapons comes the show of outrage and imminent action.  Are the gassed dead any more dead than those who were blown to bits with munitions?”

Likewise, in an op-ed for the Gulf News, Abdullah Al Shayji asserts that despite President Obama’s own rhetoric and inclination for staying clear of military entanglements in the Middle East, Mr. Obama must do more than just lob a few missiles into Syria: “The irony here is that the president, who was elected to end wars in the Middle East, is now about to start one there. Obama’s credibility is on the line. Although the Iraq hangover still haunts U.S. officials, Syria, as British Prime Minister David Cameron stated to a skeptical House of Commons, is not Iraq….If the strike backfires and does not topple the regime, then Al Assad will boast he stood up to the imperialists and defeated them. Some Republican strategists argue Obama lacks the clarity and confidence to act. The dilemma for Obama is: if he does not respond with authority, America’s foes will interpret it as weakness. In a region where the U.S. is no longer feared or trusted, what is needed is more than punishing Al Assad for crossing the red line and gassing his own people. Firing a few missiles to restore Obama’s credibility is not a substitute for sound strategy.”

The Iranians, meanwhile, have threatened that the consequences of a U.S. attack on Syria could lead to a widening of the conflict into Israel and other U.S. allies in the region. In a statement posted by the state-owned Tehran Times, “The commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) has said that the response to a possible military intervention in Syria by the United States will go beyond the Syrian borders. Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari made the remarks on the sidelines of a meeting of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council on Saturday. ‘War and insecurity are fluid and uncontrollable phenomena,’ he said, adding, ‘A war beside the Zionist regime will increase the possibility of the spread of the crisis into (the territories occupied by) the regime.’ The national security of the countries which cooperate with the United States in its possible military intervention in Syria will be undermined, he said.”

Asharq Alawsat’s Shahir Shahid Saless looks at the domestic implications for Iran following a U.S. strike against Syria: “Iran’s likely reaction to possible attacks by the U.S. and its allies will depend on their intensity. Iranian officials, such as the commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, warned the United States government that they risked engagement in a costly and protracted struggle if they intervened in Syria….In any case, regardless of how a U.S.-led military operation shapes up, the outcome of such a manifestation would be the renewal of Iran’s radical foreign policy and the weakening of Rouhani’s newly established, moderate government….This will marginalize Rouhani and his foreign policy team led by his moderate and pragmatic foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, whose emergence has created high hopes of ending Iran’s aggressive foreign policies.”

Some Israelis, on the other hand, have drawn their lessons from what they perceive to be Mr. Obama’s indecision vis-à-vis the Assad regime. As Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon puts it, “Whether or not Israel decides to act against Iran could be determined in large part by how the world acts now against Syria.  And the British parliament’s vote Thursday against military action is not a great sign….The Iranians, watching this show, are surely calculating what action they could expect if they run at full speed to nuclear capability.  One could not blame them for concluding that the French will speak tough, the British will vote military action down in parliament. And Obama will bring the matter to Congress for a vote if Congress is in session. If not, he will wait patiently until Congress re-convenes to ask its opinion. That kind of international dallying is not the type of behavior that will instill confidence in Israeli leaders that they can count on the world when it comes to Iran.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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