By Mehmet Yegin
Syria was not an ally of the United States before the popular movements. The U.S. government has long been applying sanctions on Syria and its regime was on the shortlist of countries that should be toppled after Iraq’s.
Barack Obama’s engagement policy brought reciprocal symbolic steps between Washington and Damascus. Nevertheless, this initiative was short-lived and Obama also employed sanctions on Syria.
Rhetorical support, avoid military engagement
That is why we cannot talk about an ally or a partner that the U.S. will lose if Bashar al-Assad steps down. On the contrary, in such a case, the U.S. would have the opportunity to hamper the influence of Iran and cut its ties with groups that target Israel. Besides, the U.S. will also have the opportunity to rule out Russian influence as well. Thus, the U.S. administration is positive on the idea of al-Assad’s removal and would support this development. President Obama himself has called on al-Assad to step down repeatedly.
The U.S. supports the Syrian opposition rhetorically and to some extent diplomatically. Yet, the idea of a military intervention or any other type of military engagement is being avoided by the U.S. The expected gains do not satisfy Washington. At this point, the U.S. fears that after a successful intervention, the Muslim Brotherhood or radical Islamists may come to power in Syria and display anti-American and anti-Israel attitudes.
Furthermore, a failure will place a serious burden on the shoulders of the Obama administration. It is useful to note that the U.S. will have to face Iran, Russia and China to intervene in Syria. There is the risk of unrest spreading across the region, to areas with delicate balances. In contrast, it is hard to point to a great loss in the continuation of the status quo for the U.S. Syria is not an ally that will upset the balances when it is lost like strategic Egypt or an oil-rich Libya. In this respect, there is no significant reason to convince the Obama administration to take the risk.
Domestic dynamics in effect
More than all other arguments, a particular focus on domestic dynamics is vital in grasping Obama’s position on Syria. This is an election year and Obama does not want any huge problem to pop up and put him in a difficult position as the incumbent. Possible turmoil in the Middle East or the collapse of a stable Iraq would boost Republican criticisms on troop withdrawal.
Thus, Obama would not bet on Syria as that could escalate tension and instability in the region, which would hurt his campaign.
In addition, while focusing on the economic crisis, the American public would interpret an intervention as “wasting limited resources” for an “unnecessary adventure.” It is useful to recall the criticisms of Obama in the Libyan case even though the U.S. was “leading from behind” then.
The possibility of a humanitarian cause for military intervention and public pressure seem low because the al-Assad administration is abstaining from mass murders, thus preventing the formation of a remarkable reaction in American people. Even in cases of blatant atrocities such as Homs, the American public’s attention to Syria has been pretty low.
According to the Pew Research Center, only 9 percent of media coverage is allocated for Syria and the public interest in Syria comes after the elections, economy, and even after the cancer drug shortage at only 4 percent. Unless a serious intervention takes place, the al-Assad administration is expected to continue the present course and there will not be huge public pressure under such circumstances.
In short, the Obama administration regards a military intervention as a huge risk for its campaign and sees that the status quo better serves its interests, at least during an election period. Thus, the U.S. will publicly shun providing arms out of concerns of an escalation. There is no political will to go there for a solely humanitarian cause either. Thus, the rhetoric about an al-Qaeda risk in Syria or an uncoordinated and unknown Syrian opposition does not seem to be the real reason behind the U.S. hesitation.
USAK Center for American Studies
*This op-ed was previously published in Hurriyet Daily News on March 13, 2012.