Obama Opts for Syrian ‘Regime Change’

The most realistic route for peace in Syria is a power-sharing arrangement that protects the interests of the Sunni majority and the Alawites and other religious minorities backing President Bashar al-Assad. But President Obama has thrown in his lot with the forces pressing for Assad’s violent removal, as Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett explain.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

Following President Barack Obama’s address to an audience of Israeli students in Jerusalem last month, progressive commentators in the United States hailed the speech as “a passionate appeal for peace” that “placed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict squarely back on his agenda.” But those intoxicated by Obama’s rhetoric will soon experience a painful hangover. For the President’s Israel speech and the rest of his Middle East trip were focused, first and foremost, on domestic politics here in the United States.

And Obama’s Middle East strategy is marked by a growing discrepancy between the arrogance of America’s regional agenda and its declining capacity to realize this agenda.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, before a poster of his father.

Understanding the tragedy of Obama’s Middle East policy requires some historical perspective. Two decades ago, America came out of the Cold War and the first Persian Gulf War with a degree of strategic supremacy like the world had not seen for centuries. This supremacy seemed especially pronounced in the Middle East.

Since then, though, America has not been content to maintain its primacy in the Middle East, defend its interests there, and deal effectively with the region’s complex political and security dynamics. Instead, it has succumbed to a post-Cold War temptation to act as an imperial power in the Middle East, trying to coerce political outcomes with the goal of consolidating a pro-American regional order.

The United States did this by retaining military forces on the ground in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states after the first Gulf War, something it did not do, to any significant extent, during the Cold War. It did this by leveling sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime that led to the deaths of more than a million Iraqis, including half a million children. It did this after 9/11 by invading Afghanistan and Iraq and pursuing prolonged occupations that have killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.

It is doing this today with escalating sanctions, covert operations, and cyber-attacks against Iran. Linked to all of these policies is Washington’s perpetual insistence that everyone in the region not just accept Israel but tolerate virtually any definition of its security requirements and territorial needs put forward by the Israeli government.

This imperial turn has proven not just quixotic but deeply damaging to American standing, in the Middle East and globally. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama seemed to understand this when he pledged not just to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq but to end what he called the “mindset” that led America into the strategic mistake of invading Iraq in the first place. But, as president, Obama has pursued the same kinds of policies as his predecessors, extending the damage they did to America’s strategic position.

Among other self-damaging policies, Obama has, like his predecessors, bought into the proposition that an Israel with nearly absolute freedom of military initiative bolsters U.S. supremacy in the Middle East, by helping to subordinate regional players aspiring to some measure of strategic independence. Consequently, he is presiding not just over a stalled Middle East peace process, but over the very demise of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In this context, Obama’s primary mission in Israel was making peace not between Israelis and Palestinians but with the Israel lobby and Congress, to boost his chances of passing a domestic agenda before congressional elections in 2014. While the Israel lobby does not take positions on domestic issues, it nonetheless has real impact on a president’s ability to get domestic initiatives through Congress, for congressmen are less willing to take politically difficult votes, even for a president of their own party, if that president’s foreign policies generate friction with the lobby.

In Jerusalem, Obama was out to persuade “pro-peace” constituencies in his electoral coalition that he has not abandoned the project of Israeli-Palestinian peace, but without offering the substantive definitions of the requirements for a viable two-state solution that so offend the Israel lobby. He made only the most passing reference to prior statements about 1967 borders as an essential baseline for negotiating a territorial settlement, or to halting Israeli settlements as essential to progress.

More tellingly, Obama’s admonitions that only direct negotiations with Israel can produce peace and that Palestinians must not try the “short cut” of seeking further UN recognition for a Palestinian state are clear signals that realizing Palestinian rights is not his priority. Two decades of direct talks between Israel and Palestinians have produced neither peace nor a Palestinian state.

While Israel continues vaguely professing interest in peace, and Obama insists the Palestinian Authority help police Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank, for most Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims there is no moral case for peace (much less Israeli security) when Palestinian rights remain subjugated.

If Obama were serious about Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, he would have the United States sponsor Palestinian membership in the United Nations, not veto it, so that the International Criminal Court could hear Palestinian claims about occupation and Israeli human rights violations.

But Obama won’t do that, even though U.S. support for Israel’s occupation of Arab populations and military aggression grows ever more damaging to America’s standing as regional publics become more mobilized, because he is on board with the established strategy. And so he promotes a peace process, not actual peace, just a process, designed to protect Israel’s capacity to dominate its neighbors militarily.

Obama’s support for Syrian oppositionists reflects the same sort of hubristic thinking. His administration started backing opposition elements in 2011, not to help Syrians but to weaken Iran’s regional position and perhaps even spark the Islamic Republic’s overthrow. This proved unrealistic, for Assad’s government even today represents sizable constituencies.

As time passed and Assad didn’t fall, concern that jihadi extremists gaining ever greater prominence in opposition ranks would target U.S. interests (as happened in Libya) prompted the administration to temper its stance in advance of the 2012 U.S. presidential election. Now it is returning to the imperial game, disregarding risks to both U.S. security interests and regional stability.

That’s why, in contrast to his charade on the Palestinian issue, Obama put real effort during his Middle East trip into brokering a renewal of Israeli-Turkish relations, for, in Washington’s view, Israeli-Turkish cooperation could facilitate a renewed push for Assad’s removal.

Just three days after Obama’s Jerusalem speech, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Baghdad, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki beside him, that Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, assured him Maliki “is going to do whatever I say.” (Maliki immediately replied, “We won’t do it.”) Though fobbed off as a “joke,” Kerry’s talking points for what he later described as “spirited” private talks with Maliki reflected a conviction that Washington can in fact leverage Baghdad’s compliance with U.S. demands on Syria.

Kerry told Maliki that barring Syria-bound Iranian aircraft from Iraqi airspace is a condition for Iraq’s inclusion in discussions of Syria’s post-Assad future. Kerry also warned that failing to cooperate in ending the Syrian conflict on Washington’s preferred lines, through Assad’s removal, raises the danger that fighting will “spillover” and destabilize Iraq.

This ignores that Maliki’s interests are profoundly threatened by Assad’s prospective displacement by U.S./Saudi/Turkish-backed opposition forces. (That’s why Maliki said that, while wanting good relations with Saudi Arabia, he will conclude a formal alliance with Iran if Assad falls.)

The most likely result of rebel “success” is not the Assad government’s replacement by a coherent, nationwide alternative. It’s Syria’s devolution into warring fiefdoms, with forces loyal to what’s left of the government battling increasingly fractious opposition militias that fight each other as much as they fight the Assad camp. Under these circumstances, Washington has no plausible claim it can stop extremist jihadis now fighting in Syria from taking their campaign for a new salafi ascendancy into Iraq.

Maliki has a clear interest in seeing the Syrian conflict stop. But the only credible way this can happen is if America and others backing Syrian rebels get behind a new political compact for Syria, based on power-sharing between government and opposition.

Until then, Iraq’s interests, like those of Iran, Russia, and China, lie in thwarting efforts by Washington and its partners to remake the regional balance by targeting the Assad government. That’s a recipe for prolonged carnage, in Syria and perhaps elsewhere, that smarter, and less imperial, U.S. policy could avert.

Flynt Leverett served as a Middle East expert on George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff until the Iraq War and worked previously at the State Department and at the Central Intelligence Agency. Hillary Mann Leverett was the NSC expert on Iran and from 2001 to 2003  was one of only a few U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Iraq. They are authors of the new book, Going to Tehran. [This article was originally published at Al Jazeera and Huffington Post.]

2 comments for “Obama Opts for Syrian ‘Regime Change’

  1. F. G. Sanford
    April 2, 2013 at 18:18

    Of course, history never precisely repeats itself. But some broad strokes of the brush do produce images reminiscent of past canvasses. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but in the art world as well as in politics, the last thing any of these self-proclaimed innovators will ever admit to is that they have borrowed a page from anyone else, even when it seems plainly traced from the original. I recently had to endure one of those obligatory holiday phone calls from the Republican side of the family, and as always, out of a clear blue sky, they managed to turn the holiday greetings into a political diatribe. This time, it was inspired by the FOX news hype about the nuclear threat from Kim Jung Un. “Well, you know, after all, he’s a complete nut, and God knows what he could do, and we could trust his father because he was older and wiser, and he dismantled the nuclear reactors, but now he’s building new reactors which he claims are for electricity, but they’re not connected to any power grid, so the only possible use he could have for them is nuclear weapons, and even if he doesn’t have a delivery system, he could sell those weapons to terrorists”. This rant is coming from a sixty five year old wealthy white person with a master’s degree and a career in information technology. Hopeless.

    At the same time our strategy in the Middle East is failing, we have witnessed the successful BRICS meeting which will eventually have a negative effect on the status of the dollar as the world reserve currency. The financial skulduggery which began in Britain and the United States has finally led to the crisis in Cyprus. An apparently productive meeting between Russia and China to iron out avenues of cooperation has been concluded. India has challenged “Big Pharma” and has succeeded in extraditing military personnel from a NATO country on charges that could carry the death penalty. Pakistan, a country which actually has functional nuclear weapons, has welcomed home a General whose loyalties were always mysterious. At home, we’re arguing about gun control, gay marriage and “eternal support” for the current custodians of the birthplace of our own version of lunatic religious fanaticism. The new Pope is praying for peace and washing people’s feet, but hasn’t really expressed a courageous position on the path which could produce it.

    Power, as any of the great dictators would confirm, is not a characteristic of leadership. It actually is leadership. Good or bad, its defining characteristic is the ability to get something done. Having failed in the Middle East, our new strategy is a “Pivot to the East”. The new Pacific initiative, attractively packaged by the media hype regarding Kim Jung Un, is a godsend to our rudderless foreign policy “experts”. A convenient distraction from the financial, political, trade, foreign policy, domestic infrastructure, manufacturing, education and healthcare failures, it will also draw attention from the the failure in the Middle East. We are at the point that the only means left to validate the empire is violence. The weaker and more incompetent the victim the better. Reagan chose Grenada and Panama. Bush Sr. went after Iraq, weakened by ten years of war with Iran and suckered into Kuwait by Ambassador April Glaspie. Bush Jr. went after Afghanistan, weakened by ten years of war with the Soviets, and Iraq, weakened by a war with his daddy.

    The last time a failing empire “pivoted to the east”, it had suffered a strategic blunder. Failing to achieve the easy victory anticipated, an opponent assumed to be less capable of self defense was attacked. The “pivot to the east” didn’t go very well. Eventually, the west regrouped and took some initiative. To the west of Korea is China. And the Chinese know something about real power. There is, thanks to our unremitting support for Israeli expansion, no hope for an outcome favorable to The United States or the Palestinians in the Middle East. Eventually, that will translate into existential difficulties for Israel. In the meantime, America would be wise to conceal its weakness or preserve its strength, depending on your point of view, by ignoring that defenseless little clown in North Korea. With any luck, Americans will remain hysterically obsessed with God, Gays and Guns, and our government will remain too paralyzed to do anything dangerous in Asia. And, if they had any sense, the Israelis would be the first to agree.

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