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Focus on Syria

Jun 03,2014 - Last updated at Jun 03,2014

President Barack Obama’s foreign policy speech at the West Point Military Academy last week was criticised by pundits for being vague about America’s military response to ongoing and future crises around the world.

The US president talked about America’s leadership and values, but also about military restraint and collective action with US allies.

He acknowledged that the biggest threat to America and its allies today is terrorism and, as a result, his actions in the Middle East will rest on ways to deal with this danger.

On Egypt, Obama said: “We acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests — from the peace treaty with Israel, to shared efforts against violent extremism.”

There was no mention of the aspirations of the Egyptian people and the internal dynamics that took place over the past three years.

Fighting terrorism has become the main focus of US foreign policy in the region; no more talk about democracy and social justice.

While underlining the role of diplomacy and working with allies, the president failed to mention America’s responsibility in helping achieve a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.

He referred to Iran as an example of where collective action had succeeded in launching serious negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. And on Syria, again the president talked about working with allies to ease the crisis.

He said that he will work to “ramp up support” for certain elements in the Syrian opposition who “offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator”.

The Obama administration is weighing options to provide training and equipment to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but there are growing doubts that this will be enough to change things on the ground.

America’s reaction to the four-year-old Syrian crisis has been vague and confused. It is not clear what the new direction, if it ever materialises, will mean to the Syrian people.

With America’s focus on fighting extremism in the region, it is possible that the training and weapons that will be provided to so-called moderate elements will be used against radical rebels, such as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Jabhat Al Nusra, rather than regime forces.

The FSA is already involved in fierce battles against ISIL in Der Al Zour, and in the southern district of Darra fighting broke out between the FSA and Jabhat Al Nusra.

The US is backing the Iraqi army, which has engaged ISIL in Anbar province. The Americans are providing technical and logistical support to the army in Yemen, which is fighting on two battlefronts; one against Al Qaeda in the south and the other against the Houthis in the north.

And just like in Yemen and Afghanistan, the White House is contemplating the use of drones in Syria at some stage.

Obama said he would ask Congress to provide a $5-billion fund to “train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines” of fighting terrorism.

Who will benefit from this and how remains to be seen, but we can expect active US support to countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen.

As America focuses its effort on the fight against terrorism in the region, its commitment to finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis will wane.

Already efforts to resume the Geneva process have faltered.

UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi resigned. Syria’s President Bashar Assad is holding tight on to power and will be re-elected to a third term in office despite international condemnation.

While it is in the interest of countries in the region to check the advance of Jihadist groups that are now active in sub-Sahara, Libya, Egypt and Somalia among others, the Arab world and the international community cannot turn their back to the suffering of the Syrian people.

Obama’s offer to train and equip moderate rebels in Syria will not be a game changer.

In contrast to Obama’s new/old line of thinking, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said a few weeks ago that even if the beleaguered Syrian opposition somehow ousts Assad, a development that appears increasingly unlikely, the country will still be consumed by terror, chaos and starvation.

It is clear that the current international standoff on Syria will not end soon. Meanwhile, the war continues and civilians die every day.

One-third of the Syrian population has been displaced. Refugee camps in host countries are growing. The absence of a political solution is matched only by the non-existence of a military conclusion to the crisis.

This is why Arab countries should look elsewhere for possible breakthroughs.

The visit this week by Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Jaber Al Sabah to Tehran is a step in the right direction. So is Saudi Arabia’s invitation to Iran’s foreign minister to visit Riyadh soon.

Prolonging the war will only guarantee the destruction of Syria. One cannot count on America’s intervention or leadership to resolve the situation.

Arming the rebels now will not change things and fits more into Obama’s fight against terror than helping end the war in Syria.

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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