President Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday at the United Nations made clear that the Middle East would be a focal point of U.S. foreign policy “for the long haul,” with renewed efforts toward resolutions on Iran’s contested nuclear program, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the civil war in Syria.
However, Obama also made it clear that the United States wouldn’t be doing all the heavy lifting on those fronts and would make U.S. military action – used pre-emptively by his predecessors – a tool of last resort. That’s not welcome news to Syrian rebels or their interventionist supporters in the Persian Gulf, Europe and even within the Obama administration and Congress.
“I have made it clear that even when America’s core interests are not directly threatened, we stand ready to do our part to prevent mass atrocities and protect basic human rights. But we cannot and should not bear that burden alone,” the president said.
Obama’s speech before other world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly focused almost entirely on the Middle East and North Africa, where upheaval has dashed the administration’s plans to ease engagement and pivot to the economic promise of the more stable Asia Pacific region.
Foreign policy analysts say the speech was at times vague and contradictory, a reflection of the administration’s uneven response to the Arab Spring revolts and their messy aftermaths in Egypt, Libya and, most urgently, Syria, where more than 100,000 people have died and millions have been forced from their homes.
Obama said military action sometimes was needed to prevent mass atrocities, but he made it clear that chemical weapons were the chief U.S. interest in Syria’s vicious civil war – not U.S. intervention to stop the bloodshed.
He praised Iran’s leaders for making overtures to reassure the West that its nuclear program was peaceful, but he demanded that Iran – along with Russia – withdraw support for Syrian President Bashar Assad. Obama praised Assad at one point for submitting a list of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles as part of a U.S.-Russian deal, but he also called the Syrian leader a murderer who’d lost legitimacy and had to go.
“A leader who slaughtered his citizens and gassed children to death cannot regain the legitimacy to lead a badly fractured country,” Obama said. “The notion that Syria can return to a prewar status quo is a fantasy.”
The problem with that statement, analysts said, is that Obama’s administration still doesn’t have an answer to the natural follow-up question: If Assad goes, who’s going to take charge?
“There are many signs that Tehran is interested in a nuclear compromise, but I haven’t seen any signs that they’re preparing to abandon Assad,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “On the contrary, I suspect Iran will try to convince the U.S. that the takfiri alternative is more dangerous to them both,” he added, alluding to the extremists who make up the most successful rebel militias.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition, plagued by infighting and beholden to Saudi Arabia and other foreign powers, isn’t yet prepared to administer a post-Assad landscape populated by regime loyalists, Iranian operatives, rebel jihadists and traumatized, displaced families. The opposition’s fighting front, the Supreme Military Council, suffers many of the same ills, and it’s regularly outmaneuvered by al Qaida-style extremists who are ostensibly on the same side.
A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the sensitive diplomacy on Syria, told reporters in New York that the opposition coalition had made progress in recent months by agreeing to participate in a Geneva peace summit, forming an interim government and expanding membership to include more members of the Kurdish minority.
The official acknowledged, however, that there are still major "credibility issues" for the opposition and that opposition leaders would have to work harder to earn influence inside of Syria. That's made more difficult now, the official said, because “there's a real firefight" going on between al Qaida-linked fighters and rebels loyal to the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Council.
The official described the violence as "the hardest fighting we've ever seen" as it spreads across a huge swath of rebel held territory.
In a further blow to the so-called "moderate" Syrian rebels, several of the major Islamist fighting groups issued a statement Tuesday announcing a new Islamist "alliance" that would challenge the Syrian Opposition Coalition for authority, according to Arabic-language news reports and a copy of the purported document that quickly went viral on Syria social media forums.
Qatar’s monarch, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, took a subtle dig at the U.S. focus on Syria’s chemical arsenal in his speech Tuesday before the assembly. He said Syrians hadn’t risen up to place chemical weapons under international supervision but for the broader goal of “getting rid of despotism and corruption and to end the injustice.”
But even Qatar, a main financier of the Syrian opposition and rebel movement, urged the anti-Assad forces to get their acts together.
“I take this opportunity to call upon our Syrian brothers to unify their ranks for entering a transition period that leads to establishing a governing system that guarantees freedom and dignity for all Syrians without discrimination on the grounds of gender, nationality, sect or creed,” Thani said. He added that so many lives hadn’t been sacrificed only to exchange Assad’s authoritarian rule for “chaos or another kind of despotism.”
While speaking sternly on what the U.S. says is Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, Obama also sounded more conciliatory notes, supporting the Iranians’ right to access nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and saying he was encouraged by the gestures of newly elected President Hasan Rouhani, who also addressed the assembly Tuesday.
“I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight; the suspicion runs too deep,” Obama said. “But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”
Obama also addressed other restive spots in the region. He chided Egypt’s military, which ousted the elected president, Mohammed Morsi, for practices such as reinstating sweeping emergency laws that aren’t in line with restoring democracy. He pointedly said that the U.S. was withholding some military aid pending signs that Egypt was returning to the path of an “inclusive” democratic state.
“Our approach to Egypt reflects a larger point: The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests,” Obama said, adding that the U.S. would continue to support human rights and oppose the use of violence to suppress dissent.