Obama could re-think Syria policy in second term | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 16.11.2012
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Obama could re-think Syria policy in second term

Barack Obama's re-election had significant implications for the Middle East - particularly on the region's most desperate situation, the chaos in Syria. And there are signs of a sea-change in Washington.

REFILE - QUALITY REPEAT Members of the Free Syrian Army fires during clashes with Syrian Army soldiers in Aleppo's Saif al-Dawla district, August 20, 2012. U.S. forces could move against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, President Barack Obama warned, notably if he deploys his chemical weapons against rebels trying to overthrow him. Picture taken August 20, 2012. REUTERS/Zain Karam (SYRIA - Tags: CONFLICT)

Krieg in Syrien Kämpfe in Aleppo

Barack Obama's re-election gives the US president the chance to re-start what many see as a patchy foreign policy record. Tentative attempts to find a new peace plan in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict early in his first term came to nothing, and since then his attitude to the Middle East and the Arab Spring has been passive and cautious, the NATO-led ouster of Moammar Ghadafi in Libya notwithstanding.

But Obama's preference for multilateralism over unilateralism, much celebrated by those alienated by George W. Bush and the disastrous war in Iraq, has brought its own problems. Pro-democracy activists in the Arab world have criticized the US for not doing more to support the fragile democracies there - particularly by failing to pressure the new Egyptian and Tunisian governments to foster transparency, human rights, and social and economic equality.

U.S. President Barack Obama receives a standing ovation before speaking at Cairo University in Cairo, Thursday, June 4, 2009. In his speech,President Obama called for a new beginning between the United States and Muslims, declaring that this cycle of suspicion and discord must end. The address was designed to reframe relations after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Much has changed in the Middle East since Obama's speech in Cairo

Though neglecting the ongoing struggles in those countries could have serious consequences for the US in the mid-term, the immediate issue is the unravelling catastrophe in Syria. President Bashar Assad's skill at internationalizing the conflict there - securing support in the United Nations from Russia and China and help from neighbour Iran - is already threatening to destabilize the region, with thousands of refugees fleeing the country, and shots being fired across the borders with Turkey and Israel.

Deadly stagnation

The stagnation in Syria has driven the situation from the world's front pages, but around 200 people are being killed there every day, and as Spanish-Syrian activist Leila Nachawati said at a recent panel discussion in Berlin, the international community's failure to confront Assad's brutality has effectively given the Syrian regime a license to kill. For the Syrian population, the US and Europe's inactivity amounts to support for Assad, she said.

"We don't ask for support, we just want the US and Europe to stop supporting Assad," Nachawati said during the discussion at the Bertelsmann foundation, which included foreign policy analysts from the European Union, Turkey, and Washington, as well as activists from several Arab Spring countries.

DW-Panel auf der re:publica am 03.05.2012 in Berlin: Um eine Bestandsaufnahme der Medienlandschaft in Syrien, Ägypten und Tunesien rund ein Jahr nach dem Arabischen Frühling ging es in einem DW-Panel am Donnerstag, 3. Mai. Folgende Experten diskutierten das Thema „From Dissent to Disillusionment“: - Claire Ulrich, Jurymitglied der BOBs, des internationalen Blog-Awards der Deutschen Welle - Tarek Amr, ägyptischer Blogger und Mitglied der BOBs-Jury - Leila Nachawati, syrische Bloggerin und Aktivistin Es moderiert Zuflikar Abbany, Journalist bei der DW. Bilder: DW

Nachawati says the West should stop supporting Assad

"As Desmond Tutu said, if you stay neutral at the time of human rights abuses, you have taken the side of the oppressor," Nachawati told Deutsche Welle. "But when Syrians talk about Europe and the rest of the world supporting Assad, they mean a long tradition, of 40 years, of dealing with this regime economically and politically."

That has now manifested itself in the West's failure to isolate the Assad regime. "We're referring to not implementing restrictions, and waiting for things to get worse and worse," she added. "Not isolating the regime equals supporting the regime."

Not a civil war

Worse, many Syrians argue that the West's failure to allow weapons into the country is playing into Assad's hands. Yasser Alhaji, a Syrian journalist and local committee organizer, who had just arrived in Berlin from Aleppo, made an emotional intervention at the end of the debate. "We don't want military intervention," he said. "Just give us some arms, and we will defend ourselves. We don't want foreign fighters."

Nachawati echoed this. "I don't think Syrians are waiting with open arms for a country that has invaded Iraq and destroyed the lives of several generations. We're not stupid," she said. "We would accept the isolation of the regime. We're not happily waiting with open arms for anyone to come rescue the Syrian people."

Syrian opposition fighters also object to the common portrayal of the conflict in Syria as a civil war. "It's not a civil war," said Alhaji. "A civil war is where people are fighting each other. We are simply fighting an army that belongs to the government."

Michele Dunne, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC, acknowledged that the spiralling violence was forcing US policymakers into a re-think on Syria. "Obama had a whole list of reasons not to intervene or allow weapons into Syria," she said. "It would escalate the violence, it would encourage al Qaeda to establish itself, it would cause the conflict to spill over the borders - and they've realized that all of this has happened anyway."

Syrian rebel fighters search for government forces on the front line in Aleppo's northern Izaa quarter, on November 3, 2012. Syrian rebels said they had launched a major assault on a northern airbase used to deploy regime air power, on the eve of a crucial meeting to decide the future of the opposition. AFP PHOTO/PHILIPPE DESMAZES (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)

Around 200 people are being killed in Syria every day

Damned if you do…

In fact, Obama's hesitation over Syria and the Middle East, fuelled partly by fears of a mis-step ahead of the presidential election, is also down to an inescapable feeling in Washington that whatever the US does - intervention or non-intervention - it will be wrong and will only cause even more mis-trust.

"I think it's discouraging for Obama, because the polling shows that he enjoyed a brief spurt of popularity [in the Middle East] after he gave his speech in Cairo in 2009, but since then attitudes to Obama are as bad as they were toward George Bush," she told DW.

For Dunne, the key for second-term Obama is to back up the rhetoric of first-term Obama. "I think in many cases, people have been satisfied with the positions he's taken," she argued. "For example, supporting the desire of the Syrian people for freedom, or supporting the desire of people in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya to establish new systems, and also to keep the region free of another country with nuclear weapons, that is Iran. Most people would say these are the right positions. The problem is that in the first term his administration was pretty ineffective."

To help him recalibrate his foreign policy, Obama can look forward to a change of senior personnel. "There's going to be a large change of senior personnel," said Dunne. "There will be a new Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor, director of the CIA. There will be changes in the members of Congress holding the senior committee positions. There's always hope that with a new team, they'll come up with new answers."

Europe's credibility gap

But given that the US is viewed with suspicion in the Middle East, some might say this is a good moment for the European Union to assert itself on the international stage. Not necessarily, argued Marc Pierini, a former EU diplomat who has either served as ambassador or head of delegation in Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Libya and Turkey.

"I think there is an anti-western feeling in the Arab world, for the simple reason that since September 11, 2001, the entire western community sided with regimes that were in place at that time," he pointed out to DW. "These regimes presented themselves as the best firewall against terrorism, and our governments decided to believe them. So you have a credibility gap whether you're talking to a young civilian activist in Cairo, or a Muslim brother, or an Islamist party member. That is often underestimated. Their question is 'Where were you when we suffered? When we were tortured?' " That sentiment is now being reflected in Syria.

Leading Syrian dissident Riad Seif (L) speaks with former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, who defected from the Assad regime, during the General Assembly of the Syrian National Council in Doha November 11, 2012. Syria's fractious opposition finally put aside fierce arguments to rally behind a new leader within a new coalition that its Western and Arab backers hope can topple Bashar al-Assad and take over the country. REUTERS/Mohammed Dabbous (QATAR - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

The Syrian opposition agreement in Doha offers new hope

But Europe has its own reasons to be wary of intervening in Syria. "The implications of conflict are huge," said Pierini. But there is hope - the Syrian opposition is beginning to coalesce into a coherent force. After four days of marathon talks in Doha, Qatar, the Syrian National Council (SNC) last Sunday signed up to a more representative bloc centered on a government-in-waiting.

"Until the Doha meeting a couple of days ago, we didn't know exactly who we were dancing with," said Pierini. "The Syrian opposition, until now, was basically a group of expatriates, and then the Free Syrian Army, with various factions but no united command, and no link between the military and civilian branches. Maybe now this is coming."

But even without a united opposition, which, as Nachawati said, no country in the world can claim to have, there are practical measures that European governments could undertake - like banning the export of surveillance technology, which Assad uses to track down activists. On this point, Pierini admitted, "Our foreign ministries always tend to go gradually."

A sense of urgency has been desperately lacking so far, said Alhaji. "What we need is more substance, more effective ideas how to deal with the situation," he said. "This is just discussion, and if we go on like this it will be too late."

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