The Full Story on Why Obama Backed Down on Syria
By: Ibrahim al-Amin
Published Monday, September 2, 2013
Commentators in the West will surely declare that it was their democratic systems of government that forced US President Barack Obama to back down on attacking Syria. But the events that led up to Washington’s de-escalation suggest there were other factors at play.
When Obama stepped out into the White House Rose Garden to declare that, though still intent on attacking Syria, he wanted to get Congress’ approval first, the Pentagon must have breathed a sigh of relief, knowing full well that a military strike against Damascus could spark a major confrontation in the Middle East for which they were not adequately prepared.
The story starts shortly before the Israeli-Saudi intelligence operation that engineered the chemical attack near the Syrian capital. The Americans and Europeans had begun negotiating with the Russians and the Iranians for a political settlement, after having failed to remove the regime by force. The West’s only condition was that Bashar al-Assad would not be part of the solution, even proposing to Moscow that they would be willing to allow the Syrian president to pick a successor of his own choosing.
When the Russians – after extensive discussions with their allies – told Washington that it was difficult to accept such a condition, the West turned to Plan B, which was to raise the level of military support for the opposition and reorganize the armed groups fighting against the regime, allowing Saudi Arabia to take the lead in mobilizing them to up the ante on Damascus.
The goal was to squeeze Assad by launching major offensives from both the north and the south of the country, in addition to wreaking havoc on Hezbollah on its home ground and providing more appealing incentives for Syrian army officers to defect.
In the meantime, the regime and its allies were already in the process of consolidating military gains on a number of fronts by expanding the area under government control, particularly in the area around Damascus. One such operation was to be launched on the eve of the chemical attack on August 20 against opposition forces to the south and east of the capital.
After the opposition was quickly routed in the north as it tried to sweep through the coastal Latakia region, many of their regional and international backers understood that the only way to bring about a qualitative change on the ground was by drawing the West into a direct foreign military intervention in Syria – but a justification was necessary to prompt Washington to act.
It was for this reason that the “chemical massacre” in the Ghouta area around Damascus was carried out, most likely at the hands of the Saudi and Israeli intelligence. Barely an hour had passed before the orchestrated media campaign to get Assad was in full swing, followed by condemnations and threats from Western capitals.
Washington rushed to cash in on what they insisted was an imminent military attack by sending envoys to both Russia and Iran, giving the two countries a last opportunity to stand down before unleashing their missiles on Syria. But all the sabre-rattling was not enough to force any political concessions – even Assad informed his allies that he had chosen to take a stand.
The Americans tried to respond to this by showing that they were serious about a strike, moving additional naval vessels into the eastern Mediterranean, as well as increasing the number of fighter planes in bases around Syria. But again, Russia and Iran were unmoved, refusing to give Washington any guarantees that its limited strike would not turn into a broader, prolonged war, with devastating consequences for the region as a whole.
They backed their words with action, as Russia, Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah put their forces on high alert, ordering them to make preparations for a military confrontation. Most notably, Hezbollah directed its fighters to return to their bases, as it set up an operations room in coordination with Damascus to make effective use of their combined arsenal of rockets.
The first to buckle was that old hand at such affairs, the United Kingdom, whose parliament gave Prime Minister David Cameron a way out, putting their ally Washington in the uncomfortable position of going it alone. Suddenly, Obama, too, felt the need to consult the American public and seek the approval of their representatives in Congress.
Nevertheless, Obama – having lost the initiative – has but two choices before him: He either retreats and seeks out a political settlement, or enters into a military adventure, whose outcome he cannot control. The results of round one of this global confrontation in Syria provide yet another indicator that the days when the US can call the shots, without regard for the rest of the world, are on their way to becoming a relic of history.
Ibrahim al-Amin is editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.