My colleague Anthony Bubalo has taken President Obama to task for failing to put his political-diplomatic shoulder to the wheel in seeking a resolution to the Syria crisis. It is fair criticism.
There is an overwhelming focus in the Middle East on the need for some type of US-led military response to the Syrian conflict. Regional states claim they have tried negotiation and that, because Assad is completely unresponsive, they have thus backed the disunified opposition. In turn, Damascus asserts that the Arab League has taken an anti-Syria position and therefore Damascus can no longer negotiate with the body or its members. Further muddying the waters, the growth of Salafist groups among the armed opposition and their links with al Qaeda has allowed Assad to portray himself as the last hope for stability in the region.
During my recent trip to the region, nearly all of my interlocutors were united in saying that the US needed to resolve the Syria crisis through militarily assistance and/or action. But when asked how the US could guarantee who might use its advanced weapons, nobody could provide an answer. And when asked why President Obama should risk US lives in a country where many regional states were pursuing their own conflicting agendas, at a time when the US had just finished a traumatic war of choice in Iraq and was disengaging from Afghanistan, there was again silence.
There is little to no appreciation among Arab policy elites of President Obama's doctrinal approach to the use of force, the need to account for the complete supply chain when providing advanced weaponry, the damage regional states have done by backing various players or the fact that Obama does not necessarily see Syria as the central focus of US attention. Given that Syria policy in most regional states is the preserve of the ruler, there is little if any policy depth in their views – they don't look past the immediate fall of Assad. The White House on the other hand, is all about what happens if Assad falls. Which is how it should be.
My interlocutors would have done well to read this recent article the Washington Post paraphrasing a recent interview Obama gave The New Republic in which he talked about the limits of US power, the need to be certain about the second order effects of intervention and the moral reason for intervening in Syria but not in places such as the Congo, where tens of thousands also die.
For those who wonder why Obama is so circumspect in countenancing military support, it explains much. What it doesn't do is answer Anthony Bubalo's question as to why the White House has invested so little diplomatic capital.
Photo by Flickr user Abode of Chaos.