Obama at the UN: Syrian Blues and a Persian Puzzle

by | Sep 25, 2013


The general expectation was indeed that the United States President Barack Obama’s annual address at the United Nations General Assembly session on Tuesday would contain some major pronouncements of new American policy direction on the Syrian conflict and over the situation around Iran

No doubt, the Middle East dominated his speech and all but edged out other global issues such as climate change or the US’ rebalancing strategy in Asia or global disarmament. This in itself is stunning: America, the lone superpower, in a diminished role as regional power. 

The overpowering impression one gets out of Obama’s speech is that the Middle East remains a major foreign policy preoccupation, perhaps, even the most important preoccupation, for the rest of his presidency. Obama has zeroed in on the Iran question as the one area where he will seek a presidential legacy. 

While Obama spoke, in another part of the UN Headquarters, hectic diplomatic maneuverings were going on regarding a Security Council resolution on the implementation of the Russian initiative regarding removal of chemical weapons in Syria. Obama maintained that the “evidence is overwhelming” to the effect that it was the Syrian regime that used chemical weapons in the August 21 attack near Damascus and was emphatic that it’s “an insult to human reason — to the legitimacy of this [UN] institution” — to suggest otherwise. But he advanced no fresh corroborative evidence. 

Obama used this facile argument to project two things. One, he claimed that by using chemical weapons, President Bashar Al-Assad has forever lost political legitimacy to lead his country. Two, following from the above, Obama argued for a “strong” Security Council resolution: a) to “verify” the Syrian regime’s compliance; and, b) to make clear to it “there must be consequences” if there is failure to comply. 

Significantly, Obama neither made references to the use of military force nor invoked Charter VII of the UN Charter as such and virtually implied he was making a minimalist demand. Obama left sufficient wriggle room for his UN diplomats to negotiate a “strong” resolution. 

Arguably, there was no “fire in the belly.” But the problem still remains insofar as a terrible precedent was created in the case of Libya, where also the US persuasively gave an impression that it abhorred military intervention and regime change but thereupon went on to undertake precisely that once a Security Council came through. Equally, Obama’s narrative never once acknowledged the huge contribution made by the US’ regional allies in stoking the fire of the Syrian civil war. His lamentation, therefore, that “extremists” might take advantage of the conflict does not sound convincing, because who are the extremists fighting in Syria? 

There are serious contradictions in the US position. Obama claimed it is for the Syrian people themselves to decide their future but then he also dismissed it as “fantasy” that Bashar could ever have a role in it. Obama named Russia and Iran for “insisting on Assad’s rule”, but then he ignored the active role of the US Central Intelligence Agency and of America’s close allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar in the execution of the covert regime change project through the past two to two and a half years…

The funny thing is that Obama actually proposed at one point that the US’ regional allies should exert a restraining influence on the “moderate opposition” so that latter avoids pushing for a “collapse of the state institutions” in Syria. Obama should explain how such a thing is conceivable in the prevailing circumstances — recruiting Islamist fighters from faraway places like Libya, Chechnya or Pakistan; bringing them to Syria’s neighborhood; training them, equipping them, paying daily wages to them, and infiltrating them into Syria proper; and thereafter telling them to fight sub-optimally by attacking the government forces but not weakening Syria’s “state institutions.” 

Has anything really changed in the US policy? Obama didn’t hold out an explicit assurance that the US wouldn’t attack Syria without a mandate of the UN Security Council. If at anytime in the past two-year period such an unequivocal commitment would have helped, it is now. But instead he spoke in ambivalent tones full of caveats — Obama didn’t believe military action can achieve a “lasting peace”, but then, “our response has not matched the scale of the challenge” in Syria. He didn’t believe America should determine who will lead Syria, but, he was sure Bashar cannot — and should not. Obama was horrified about Syrian regime using chemical weapons, but ignored the documented evidence of their use by opposition groups supported by the US’s allies. Obama insisted that this is not a cold war scenario or zero-sum game and claimed the US had no interest in Syria other than the welfare of its people, but then he added to it the profound considerations of regional stability and elimination of chemical weapons (which are after all Syria’s safeguard against foreign aggression) and America’s open-ended struggle against terrorists. What explains this ambivalence? 

Overcoming difficult history

Any number of factors related to the US domestic politics could be easily identified. But the key element lies in the dramatic shift in the tectonic plates on which the US-Iran standoff rested through the past three decades. 

While the Syrian track is running — “work in progress”, as Americans would say — a new parallel track is being laid in terms of the commencement of direct US-Iranian talks. The Obama administration has pondered over the countless, nameless “signals” from the new Iranian leadership of President Hassan Rouhani — his statements before and after the election as president, his cabinet appointments, and the very body language of Tehran’s diplomatic posturing lately. 

The Obama administration has made three important conclusions: Rouhani has a strong electoral mandate, which is reflective of the desire of the nation for change and reform (and normalize with the US); Rouhani is a “moderate” albeit a longstanding establishment figure fully committed to the Islamic regime; and, most important, he enjoys the confidence and support of the all-powerful Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which gives credibility to his negotiating stance and enhances his capacity to “deliver” on what he pledges. In sum, therefore, the Obama administration perceives that the time for deal-making is here and now. 

The sense of urgency is palpable. There is no time to be lost conducting back channel probing or cautiously commencing low-key contacts. Obama has dramatically raised the stakes. He disclosed, “I am directing [Secretary of State] John Kerry to pursue this effort with the Iranian government…” 

Without doubt, this is by far the single most important foreign policy move that Obama has made during the past 5-year period in office. Some draw parallel with Richard Nixon’s opening to China in the early seventies. But at the very least, Obama’s overture goes far beyond a tentative move — although he realizes that the “difficult history” of US-Iranian standoff cannot be “overcome overnight.” 

He said if a way forward can be found on the nuclear issue, it would constitute a “major step down a long road towards a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.” Obama literally borrowed the diplomatic idiom from the Iranians. He assured Tehran that the US is not seeking regime change and made it a point to take note of Khamenei’s recent “fatwa” against development of nuclear weapons and Rouhani’s most recent reiteration of it as providing the very basis for a “meaningful agreement”. 

Peace prospects brighten

Suffice to say, Obama might not have shown much fresh thinking on the Syrian conflict, but a normalization process with Tehran would have its profound side-effects on the Middle East situation, especially on Syria. 

The most hopeful part of Obama’s speech was the US’s four “core interests” in the region he spelt out for securing which Washington will be prepared to use all elements of American power — “including military power” — to confront external aggression against the regional allies; to ensure free flow of energy; to dismantle terrorist networks; and to thwart development or use of weapons of mass destruction. 

Below this threshold lies the US’ overall interests in advancing democracy, human rights, free-market economy, etc. where, Obama underscored, there are inherent limitations today to achieving the objectives “through unilateral American action, particularly through military action”.

Obama might have signaled here a calibrated distancing from the a priori thoughts of launching military attacks against Syria for effecting a regime change. It stands to reason that Obama cannot possibly instruct Kerry to talk things over with Rouhani while also order Chuck Hagel to go for the jugular veins of Assad. That’d be vintage Lawrence of Arabia, which Obama is not. 

These are early days, but a modest opinion seems justifiable that the prospects of the Geneva process aimed at resolving the Syrian conflict peacefully through negotiations may be looking better today than when the dawn broke on the Turtle Bay neighborhood of the borough of Manhattan in New York City on Tuesday.

Reprinted with permission.

Flickr/United Nations Information Centres


  • Melkulangara Bhadrakumar

    Former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. Devoted much of his 3-decade long career to the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran desks in the Ministry of External Affairs and in assignments on the territory of the former Soviet Union. After leaving the diplomatic service, took to writing and contribute to The Asia Times, The Hindu and Deccan Herald. Lives in New Delhi.

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