Barack Obama flew into Stockholm on September 4, en route to St Petersburg for the G20 meet. The US President’s first-ever touchdown in the Swedish capital was, however, not greeted with confetti-strewn streets lined with cheering crowds waving tiny stars-and-stripes. It was met by clumps of angry citizenry who came out in numbers, braving the deployment of riot police, to protest the planned ‘limited’ strike on Syria in response to alleged chemical weapons attacks on civilians by the Bashar al-Assad regime, a plan in which Obama seems to have invested much of his prestige and authority. Demonstrators’ placards, denouncing Obama as a “terrorist” and “war-mongering” leader, and condemning the US surveillance programme and the Snowden affair, matched the solemn mood and the near-empty streets of the otherwise bustling city. Most Swedes had decided to stay indoors and watch the proceedings on TV—their tepid response marking the rapidly falling international stocks of America’s first black president.
Contrast this with the welcome Obama got in the summer of 2008 when, still a US Senator, he toured Berlin. More than 2,00,000 cheering people, mostly the young, jammed the city square to give him a reception usually reserved for rock stars. Aware that he could well become the next US president, they hung on to his every word and cheered lustily at his homilies on building a peaceful, equitable world.
It’s an irony of remarkable magnitude, then, that even non-partisan observers across the world are joining Syria’s UN envoy, Bashar al-Jaafri, to ask of him: “Barack Obama got the Nobel (Peace) Prize; Obama went to Cairo to address the Arab and the Islamic world and he said there that there’d be no more wars. Where is this Barack Obama?” A ‘missing person’ report may well be in order.
Obama was a rare American leader in recent years who had a worldwide following. During the presidential polls in 2008, he garnered astonishing global support apart from those who supported and voted for him. But the disillusionment over his ‘non-performance’ and failure to deliver on electoral promises—like a different approach in dealing with the Middle East—has now turned into anger with the bellicosity over Syria.
Despite attempts by the US media and sections of the Democrats to project him as a leader reluctant to use arms, many sceptics wonder if Obama was ever a peace-loving leader. Many decisions show him to be as blatant and gauche as George W. Bush in his pursuit of ‘American interests’ (see Tariq Ali’s column). The man who deplored action in Iraq and Afghanistan and condemned Guantanamo five years ago (a Nobel Peace laureate to boot) is poised to launch an attack on an Arab country in an unilateral action without UN sanction.
By now, in fact, Obama’s call for a tough aerial strike does not come as a surprise. Under him, the US has launched the maximum number of drone attacks in Afghanistan and North Africa. It was his administration that expanded America’s cyber war on other countries and spied on world leaders—friends and foes alike. And it was his presidency that pursued the harshest punishment for whistleblowers Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning—all who tried to expose the war crimes of US troops, and the surveillance on American people and others by US agencies.
Abdel Bari Atwan, Palestine-born British commentator and author, told Outlook, “US policy in the Middle East at the moment seems entirely informed by what is best for Israel, not the indigenous population. I think I would be correct in saying that Muslims are very disappointed by the lack of impact Obama’s presidency has had on their reality.”
It is not just people in West Asia and the Muslim world who are angry with Obama; there are many in the US who are getting increasingly frustrated with the way he is running the government. Sections are actively campaigning to garner worldwide support to get the Nobel prize revoked. The president’s call to arms against Syria, delivered with the usual eloquence, has also led some to initiate signature campaigns against it.
Whether he is oblivious to such displeasure or not, Obama is soldiering on, resolved to seek support from the US Congress on his proposal to launch “surgical strikes” against the Assad regime—although, as is usual in a long and dirty war, the trail of culpability is a bit hazy in the August 21 sarin gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus. Over 1,400 were killed, hundreds of them children.
“It is not only my credibility that is on line but that of the entire world,” Obama told journalists en route to the G20 summit in St Petersburg. The meeting of the world’s 20 top and emerging economies have traditionally discussed ways of strengthening the global economy. But the gathering war clouds and the likely economic and political impact of a US military strike on Syria forced them to take up the developments in that oil-rich region at their meet. Present at the summit were leaders of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—a body likely to take up the question of whether the Syrian crisis warrants military action in the next few days.
However, there is nothing to suggest that a veto against military action on Syria—most likely to come from Russia, an old ally of the regime—would deter Obama. For he has also indicated that even if congressional support doesn’t come, he still reserves the right to go ahead with the strike.
This leads many to wonder why the US President is so set upon the military option to deal with Syria.
Many analysts argue that unlike his predecessor George W. Bush, Obama is actually a reluctant militarist. Since becoming president, he has tried to end the war in Iraq and, by next year, plans to withdraw most US troops from Afghanistan.
“I don’t think Obama is seen in the same light as the war presidency of Bush or even Tony Blair,” says Arshin Adib-Moghaddam of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “The disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan put the last nail in the coffin of imperial foreign policies, at least for now. Let’s hope the mummy does not return,” he adds.
But all indications suggest a US military strike against Syria is imminent and may come by early next week. The Obama administration’s approach should be seen in the context of West Asian geopolitics as well as important US lobbies and their myriad ties in the region. Syria, a strong ally of Iran and by extension of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, is embroiled in a bloody civil war where the Assad regime is pitted against rebels backed by outsiders, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey. There are also reports that arms are being supplied to these groups by the UK and France, whereas the Assad regime is backed by Russia and Iran. The Hezbollah had joined the Syrian troops at Iran’s behest. That crucial aid helped end the long stalemate, with balance shifting in favour of government forces—evident from its recent successes. The two-year-old conflict has rendered two million Syrians refugees in the region and another 4.25 million internally displaced, which are the worst figures of the sort since Rwanda in 1994.
For the US, striking Syria would mean undermining Iran and Hezbollah’s links with it. This not only works in favour of the Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia but also helps Israel to push back pressure on Tehran and ensure direct talks between Iran and Washington would be postponed.
“Israel is worried of the so-called pivot in Asia, that is, the US shifting its focus from the Middle East to Asia; she is interested in seeing US power being asserted in the Middle East,” says former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. “Also, an American attack on Syria is a message to Iran that the US is serious when it leaves on the table the military option to curtail Iran’s nuclear programme.”
Obama had declared that he wouldn’t get involved in Syria as long as the Assad regime used conventional weapons and refrained from using WMDs or chemical weapons—the ‘red lines’ that should not be crossed, clarifying that such a line was not drawn by him, but the international community years back. The August 21 attack, purportedly by government forces, waved a red rag at the American bull.
Though no one doubts the attack, no clear evidence holds the Assad regime responsible—a point Russian President Vladimir Putin is making repeatedly. Assad himself has argued that it constituted a suicidal course for him when his men were in the ascendant, and when UN inspectors were in Syria to inspect his weapons facilities. Even so, the US believes it is the Syrian government that had used the weapons in the form of the deadly sarin gas. This has prepared the ground for a military intervention.
Obama’s opponents on the Syrian strike plan see a strong parallel between the administration’s argument with the Bush presidency’s rationale for attacking Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003. Those doubtful of intervention include staunch allies UK. The British parliament rejected the Cameron government’s plea to join the US in military strikes on Syria. Russia is another vociferous opponent of the war. Citing the example of Libya, President Putin has argued that such attacks inevitably result in hasty regime change, chaos, and rise of religious extremism that ignite entire regions. However, Obama seems convinced that Syria deserves a serious spanking.
Most of all, going at Syria is seen as a convenient warning against Iran, which is suspected to be pushing ahead a nuclear weapons programme the US and its allies have sworn they will stop. However, action against Syria—to be completed in 30 days, without American ‘boots on the ground’, as the US Congress might stipulate—could well be the beginning of a long phase of violence and instability in an already volatile region. For an American president under growing pressure from powerful US lobbies, that is a small price to pay. Syria is just too convenient a scapegoat to let go of.