AMMAN, Jordan — Ahmad Nemah, a midlevel Syrian rebel commander, is certain there’s sound military logic behind President Barack Obama’s decision to delay U.S. missile strikes against the Syrian regime, but he’s having a hard time persuading his subordinates.
“I know that this is not a postponement but a strategic pause to . . . set up for a surprise attack,” insisted Nemah, a former colonel in Syrian air force intelligence. “Of course, people are depressed, and I’m having trouble convincing everyone that there will be a strike.”
There’s a good reason why Nemah is having difficulty selling his argument to his fighters of the Free Syrian Army, the loose tangle of disparate guerrilla bands nominally backed by the United States and its European and Arab allies. Obama’s abrupt decision on Saturday to delay the strikes that seemed just hours away is being seen in the region as the latest confirmation of an incoherent U.S. approach of mixed messages and unfulfilled threats that have driven America’s standing to a new low.
“Washington doesn’t understand the Middle East. His (Obama’s) image here is of someone who is afraid of getting enmeshed in the machinations of the Middle East,” said Maher Abu-Teyr, a political columnist with Ad-Dustour, a semi-official Jordanian daily newspaper. “There is no trust in Washington in the area because (people) think Obama is weak.”
He cited a “constant change in rhetoric and hesitation” by the United States since the brutal conflict erupted in Syria in mid-2011. Among other missteps, he said, was the U.S. reluctance to take action early in the conflict that might have bolstered moderate rebel factions before the rise of al Qaida-linked groups, which now dominate the opposition.
“Obama should have moved in the first six months of the Syria crisis, not now,” said Abu-Teyr. “Now, all of his choices are very difficult because he took all of this time.”
Obama has shifted several times since the August 2012 “red line” he first set against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons. After cautioning Assad against even moving a “whole bunch of chemical weapons around,” he didn’t enforce the warning when the regime allegedly was detected in December mixing components for the nerve gas sarin, or when in March the United States followed Britain and France in accusing Assad of having used chemical weapons “on a small scale.”
The United States repeatedly has demanded that Assad leave power. But it has failed to forge a viable alternative from the feud-riven opposition factions comprising the U.S.-constructed Syrian Opposition Coalition, which the United States and others have called the sole legitimate representative of Syria’s 20 million people.
Even if Obama – with or without congressional approval – orders U.S. warships in the Mediterranean to loose retaliatory strikes against the Syrian regime, the limited operation, which U.S. officials say wouldn’t be aimed at toppling Assad, may do little to restore Washington’s credibility. Moreover, they could carry significant costs for the security of the United States and its allies, experts said.
Washington could be dragged deeper into the conflict as a defiant Assad – bolstered by unwavering support from Russia and Iran – intensifies offensives to regain lost ground. More civilian deaths could make already long-shot prospects for peace talks even more remote while driving destabilizing flows of refugees – now estimated at 5,000 per day – into adjacent Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
In return, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey could boost their weapons supplies and other support to rebel groups.
“We all need to be prepared for things to get worse before they get better,” Antonio Guterres, the head of the U.N. refugee agency, warned Tuesday at a news conference in Geneva.
Ramzy Mardini, an independent Jordan-based political analyst who spent time at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington policy institute, said that the United States doesn’t appear to have a long-term strategy for dealing with such scenarios.
“There’s no mechanism to reinforce any particular outcome,” he said. “What you are eventually doing is encouraging military escalation.”
Obama insists that he’s committed to launching missile strikes against Assad in response to what the United States and its allies charge were regime chemical attacks that killed hundreds of civilians in rebel-held Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21. With most Americans opposing intervention, Obama put the operation on hold to lobby for congressional approval of a limited operation to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again. Assad contends that rebel forces fired the chemical weapons.
Obama “knows that if he doesn’t have congressional support it reduces the perceived legitimacy of the act both at home and abroad,” said Mark Jacobson, a former NATO official with the German Marshall Fund, a Washington policy institute.
Moreover, leaving Assad in power reflects an administration approach that wants to avoid any steps that could shift the advantage to al Qaida-linked Islamist fighters.
Obama’s calculations, however, matter little in a region whose leaders rarely pause to consider popular sentiment and that hasn’t forgotten the Bush administration’s use of bogus intelligence to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“U.S. influence has drastically decreased. It started long ago with Iraq,” said Mardini. “Nobody really cares what the U.S. says anymore. They care about action.”
Frustrated by what they see as U.S. inaction, Syrians stranded in a grimy, crime-ridden refugee camp in Jordan warned that support could grow for the al Qaida-linked groups fighting to supplant 30 years of Assad family rule with an Islamist state. The rise to power of those groups would threaten the region, especially U.S. allies Israel, Turkey and Jordan.
Several opposition activists contacted inside Syria said that Assad has been using the postponement to redeploy troops and hardware that could be targeted to safer positions and into civilian areas.
“The postponement of the American strike is helping the regime evacuate soldiers and equipment from military sites,” said an opposition activist in Ghouta, the Damascus suburb that bore the brunt of the alleged chemical attacks. “From the beginning of the revolution, the whole world has been silent about the massacres of the Syrian people. Therefore, the rebels don’t count on these (U.S.) strikes, especially after the statements that the aim . . . is not to bring down the regime.”
Obama’s reluctance to act decisively could make it even harder for Washington to get the Syrian Opposition Coalition to agree to peace talks with Assad, something the United States has been struggling to convene with Russia.
The perception of U.S. infirmity might even hurt prospects for progress toward settling the international feud over Iran’s nuclear program, because Tehran could begin doubting Obama’s threats to use force to stop it developing nuclear weapons, some experts believe.