Changing realities

That US president Obama has had no policy on Syria was evident from his flip-flops as the crisis came to a point of no return.

In a first of its kind, the United Nations is getting ready to set up a chemical weapons mission with about 100 technical specialists, administrators and security officers to destroy Syria’s nerve agent programme.This plan has been outlined by the UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon and will require approval by the Security Council in order to implement an agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons that was brokered by the United States and Russia. A UN advance team of 35 is already in Damascus to begin dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons programme, a task for which the UN faces enormous security challenges.

Just hours before the advance team arrived in Damascus, two mortars shells landed near their hotel underscoring the precarious nature of the task they have been asked to accomplish in Syria’s dangerous and volatile environment. Despite taking on this challenge, the UN Secretary General has conceded that the campaign to contain one of the world’s deadliest weapons program would not end the suffering in the country, where more than 100,000 people have died since 2011, the majority killed by conventional weapons used by the regime led by president Bashar al-Assad.

There are already concerns that the list of chemical weapons suppliedby the Assad government is far from complete and there are allegations that Syria has been moving around its chemical weapons stores even though the US Secretary of State had demanded a full and comprehensive accounting in a week’s time. There have been complaints that this diplomatic process has tied US hands and will entangle it in months of negotiations that are likely to yield little, something which suits Assad and Russia. But the deal has been enough to give the US President Barack Obama a face saving measure.
That Obama has had no policy on Syria was evident from his flip-flops as the crisis came to a point of no return. For more than two years he had insisted that Assad must go, but took few steps to hasten that departure. During this time millions of people have been displaced from their homes, al-Qaeda has found a safe haven in the country and violence has spread to neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq, with Israel, Jordan and Turkey also at risk. There has been an extraordinary failure of leadership by the US president. While deciding on intervention in a fateful West Asian war, the US president chose a minimalist option likely to fail.

Days after being on the verge of sending US missiles into Syria to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, Obama decided to go to the Congress to authorise this mission in advance. As it started to become clear that Congress would not give its approval for attack on Syria, Obama started to have a rethink. Finally, the president was offered a lifeline by the very regime he was planning to attack, when Assad agreed to a Russian plan to surrender chemical weapons.

Stronger case

As a result, Obama then decided to pursue diplomatic efforts to force Syrian President to turn over control of his chemical weapons to an international body, and eventually to see them destroyed. Failing that, he could then go back to Congress with a stronger case to make that he has exhausted peaceful efforts and that only military action is the only course left to deter the Syrians from using those weapons again. It has been a muddle all around for Washington.

As a result of Obama’s Syria policy, American position as the region’s predominant power has come under threat with regional players weighing their options and other powers asserting themselves in ways that are unprecedented. Saudi Arabia remains disturbed by the US-Russian diplomatic initiative on Syria’s chemical weapons and has called for increasing support to the Syrian opposition. Riyadh suspects that the Syrian regime would take advantage of the initiative to change the balance of power in the ground in its favour. The possible US-Iran rapprochement has also increased anxiety in the Arab Gulf states.

The regional configuration is changing rapidly in the West Asian region as the US forces have left Iraq and the fall of some of major US allies in the Arab Spring uprisings. At the same time, Russia has asserted its so far limited regional presence by standing steadfastly with its only remaining Arab ally. The passing of the Security Council resolution requiring Syria to surrender its chemical weapons arsenal was a huge achievement for Russia. Moscow is also trying to reach out to states like Iraq and Egypt to win new friends in the region. The new Egyptian government has reached out to Moscow already and the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been to Russia twice over the last year in order to sign a $4billion defence pact. The Arab states remain deeply suspicious of Russian motives and view with concern Russian manoeuverings to entrench itself at the expense of the US.

The US interest in West Asia is declining as domestic economic and political uncertainties make it look more and more inwards. Moreover, the US energy profile is changing rapidly. The shale oil and gas boom is transforming energy markets with the US likely to emerge as the world’s biggest combined oil and gas producer this year. American imports of natural gas and crude oil have fallen 32 per cent and 15 per cent since 2008 and last year the US tapped more natural gas than Russia for the first time in three decades.
These trends are re-shaping the regional order in West Asia and New Delhi will have to respond proactively to preserve and enhance its own interests in a strategically critical region.

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