Obama's delay on Syria disappoints US Mideast partners

From Turkey to the Gulf, US allies are skeptical of Russia's proposal on Syria's chemical weapons.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Obama walks to the podium before addressing the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. Obama blended the threat of military action with the hope of a diplomatic solution as he works to strip Syria of its chemical weapons.

US President Obama’s decision yesterday to postpone a US strike on Syria almost certainly elicited a sigh of relief from the Assad regime, which for all its recent bluster would apparently prefer ceding control of its chemical weapons than face a US bombing campaign.

But US partners in the region are largely disappointed that Washington has delayed action in favor of a diplomatic effort by Russia to convince Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control. For many, it represents a naïve willingness to trust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after more than 100,000 of his citizens have been killed in a civil war and reinforces concerns that America’s image as a strong global leader is waning.

“I think the feeling here was that people wanted decisive action against Assad,” says political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla of the United Arab Emirates, summarizing the response of the regional bloc known as the Gulf Cooperation Council. “The GCC would always feel comfortable sitting next to a credible America, next to a superpower that can deliver. And this superpower that we are sitting next to at the moment failed in Iraq miserably, did badly in Afghanistan, did a U-turn of sorts in Egypt, and again in Syria … it’s turning out that we are once again misled.”

‘Moral outrage’

For those countries who want Assad’s regime to fall, the lack of US action also deepens a sense of helplessness as the number of refugees crests 2 million. Without military intervention, some worry that the stalemate between Assad and the various rebel groups fighting the regime – some of which are affiliated with Al Qaeda – could persist indefinitely. 

“I think the feeling was we have let down the Syrians all along … [who are] fighting for the noblest of fights – for democracy, freedom, dignity,” adds Professor Abdullah. “This is just one more letdown, and it’s going to perpetuate the agony [of Syrians].”

Soli Özel, professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, describes the Turkish government’s “moral outrage” over the civil war and its frustration with the international community for still being willing to deal with Assad diplomatically: “Over 100,000 people died, and you’re still talking to this guy and trying to find your way with him, and that’s unacceptable,” he says, adding that Turkey has little recourse. “They cannot do anything to pursue their moral policy…. They’re expecting everyone else to take their chestnuts out of the fire and no one is interested, including the Turkish public.”

Seven in 10 Turks are opposed to military intervention in Syria, wary perhaps of exacerbating a conflict that has already pushed 450,000 Syrian refugees into Turkey.

Serkan Demirtas acknowledged in a column for the daily Hurriyet newspaper today that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu may be right that Russia’s proposal is a “cosmetic move” and that it could allow Assad to “win more time and continue his massacres, but at least it provides an opportunity for diplomacy to prevail; especially when concerns are growing about a regional spillover of the fire in Syria as a result of a foreign military intervention.”

Without a US strike, the Syrian situation may return to a stalemate, according to Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut. But the removal of chemical weapons from the equation could also open up an opportunity.

“While Russia's proposal will provide President Barack Obama with a face-saving alternative to the prospect of losing a congressional vote, it also allows the international community to refocus on the main issue: ending the civil war,” Mr. Khouri writes in a column for Lebanon’s Daily Star. “The goal of Syrians once again feeling safe in their homeland is something about which everyone can agree.” 

For Israel, US action more imperative on Iran

On Syria’s southern flank, Israelis, too, have been somewhat worried that a US strike could trigger a spillover of the conflict. But two-thirds of the public supported such a strike according to a recent poll, so there was no perceptible sigh of relief from Israel after Russia’s proposal yesterday.

While the prospect of removing Syria’s chemical weapons from the equation is appealing, not least of all to keep them out of jihadi hands, some Israelis are skeptical that Assad will make good on his promises now after numerous failed diplomatic efforts.

Their main concern is keeping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and seeing that the US retains the will and ability to stop Tehran if necessary. Both Israelis and Americans have argued that a strike in Syria is necessary to warn Iran that it, too, would face consequences for overstepping international boundaries. But Syrian expert Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University says that ultimately the question is not whether America can act decisively, but whether it has the will to do so.

“I think people do know that America is strong,” says Professor Zisser, adding that they should know better than to play with the Americans as Saddam Hussein did, calling the US a “paper tiger.” “There’s no doubt that American can do anything it wants, the minute it comes to the decision.”

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