Obama, Iran, Syria and the Priorities

Obama, Iran, Syria and the Priorities

Walid Choucair |

Needless to say, there will be no change in United States foreign policy merely because President Barack Obama has been re-elected to another four-year term. However, this does not prevent Arab leaders, elites and the general public in the region from expecting something new in terms of Washington’s moves in the Middle East.

Obama’s policy in the region has been characterized by hesitation, fall-backs, stumbling, promises and positions taken on the Palestinian issue, which have been very disappointing, compared to what he stated and hinted at the beginning of his term in 2008. This is especially in terms of his inability to halt Israeli settlements. It might be more correct to not expect a radical change in his Middle East policy, but only a change in performance, which will be more active as a result of the dynamic pace of event on the ground, particularly with regard to the international community’s problem with Iran. Dennis Ross is preparing to put forward a “huge diplomatic proposal” to Tehran, in a bid to continue giving priority to a political solution instead of a military solution, as hinted at by Israel.

The reason for the expectation of no radical change in Obama’s foreign policy is due to the priority of domestic economic challenges, which are the decisive factor in the choices of American voters, who gave Obama a second term. The best evidence of this is that he received 70 percent of the votes of Jewish Americans, despite his dispute with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Iran and the peace process. This also happened despite the fact that Netanyahu sided with Republican challenger Mitt Romney, his personal friend, upon whom he was relying to guarantee stronger support from Washington for his policies. But even a majority of supporters of Israel cast their votes based on the priority of dealing with domestic economic challenges, and not based on what the current Israeli leadership wants.

However, expecting something new in Obama’s foreign policy, despite the unlikelihood of a radical change, is due to several reasons. Most importantly, the administration has been in a coma for around a year because of the elections, which has reduced its concern with the most important issue in the Middle East, namely the Syrian crisis, to a level even below that of the hesitation that characterizes the “leading from behind” approach to the Arab Spring. Obama has not even “led from behind” when it comes to Syria, under the pretext of avoiding any mistake that could reflect negatively on the election campaign. Some say that declining to play any effective role was designed to exhaust both the Syrian regime and the opposition, to the point where Syria exits its civil war weak and destroyed, to reassure Israel about its security vis-à-vis a centrally-important country on its borders. This policy also involved exercising pressure so that the Syrian crisis did not spill over Syria’s borders to neighboring states. If this is correct, then one should note that the conclusion of the election campaign has coincided with an escalation in this latter scenario, to the degree that there is now an open discussion of Turkey’s request to deploy Patriot missiles on the Turkish-Syrian border after two tense months of shelling and counter-shelling by the two countries. There has also been an increase of activity by the PKK, which is supported by the regimes in Syria and Iran, on Turkish soil. Moreover, a number of Syrian intelligence operatives have been sent to Jordan, while there have been daily violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty. Finally, there was the assassination of the head of the Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces in Lebanon, Brigadier General Wissam al-Hasan. Lebanese leaders and officials from Arab and western countries saw this as a move to move the Syrian crisis to Lebanon, after al-Hasan revealed a bomb plot to destabilize Lebanon, which was being prepared by former Minister Michel Samaha, in coordination with Syrian intelligence. Will Obama be able to ignore the regional repercussions of the Syria crisis, and avoid offering support for the Syrian opposition, on the pretext that it lacks a unified vision? Will he be able to ignore reaching an agreement with Russia, as a key international player that supports the Syrian regime? Will Obama be able to continue pressuring the Palestinian Authority, so that it does not submit a request for recognizing Palestine as a non-member state in the General Assembly of the United Nations? Can he ignore that Hamas has exited the Syrian-Iranian alliance, becoming an adversary of the regime in Damascus, to the point that its offices in the Syrian capital were raided, while Palestinian tension over Israeli acts in Gaza and the West Bank have begun to prepare the ground for a third intifada?

Obama has a strategic justification for not letting the Middle East, with all of its enflamed crises, become a priority, as it has been with previous administrations. He noted this in his victory speech after this week’s election, when he spoke about “reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil.” This is a result of new gas discoveries in the US to the tune of trillions of cubic feet, which would meet its need for fuel and energy for more than 150 years. However, the period of time that will be needed to extract this gas could see a conflagration in the Middle East, and there will be accumulated issues that Obama will be unable to solve by leading from behind – he will be obliged to deal with them, in view of their international repercussions.