Obama Pause Emboldens Assad Backers as Opponents AdjustDana El Baltaji and James G. Neuger
Syria’s leaders were emboldened, its opposition disheartened and U.S. allies driven to a strategic rethink by President Barack Obama’s decision to pause in the drive toward war.
The Obama administration “has seen with its own eyes how its allies have deserted it, and how all it has on its side are a few mercenaries and adolescent French politicians,” Al-Thawra, a state-run newspaper close to President Bashar al-Assad, said in an editorial.
By putting a U.S. intervention on hold at least until Congress returns on Sept. 9, Obama reshuffled the calculations of Assad’s government and its opponents in neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Israel, and of U.S. allies in the Arab gulf states and Europe. The civil war that began in March 2011 has claimed more than 110,000 lives, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said today.
Obama announced the delay after Britain, the closest American ally, decided to opt out of a military campaign against Syria, as the wounds of a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq shifted public opinion against involvement in another Middle Eastern war.
Syrian opposition figures, hoping for American backup since Obama declared the use of chemical weapons a “red line” a year ago, ranged from doubting whether the U.S. will ever attack to showing a conviction that Congress will eventually untie the president’s hands.
“We have no confidence in the U.S.’s intention to help rid the Syrians of Assad,” Colonel Ahmad Hijazi of the Free Syrian Army said by phone today from an undisclosed location. “Whatever strike that follows will just be for show.”
Louay Almokdad, a logistical coordinator for the rebel army, said though he understood the democratic mechanisms in the U.S. and Europe, the price of the delay “will be more blood.”
A less pessimistic note was sounded by Burhan Ghalioun, a member of the Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella opposition group. “The president needs his decision supported by the American people,” Ghalioun said in an interview. “I don’t think that the Congress will undermine the president.”
Ghalioun said the pause will give Obama time to line up more allies and perhaps get the U.K. to change its mind. In London, however, Foreign Secretary William Hague told Sky News it’s not “realistic to think we can go back to parliament every week with the same question, having received an answer.”
The rebellion against Assad, sparked by the so-called Arab Spring revolutions of 2011, has dispersed refugees across the region. Obama said yesterday that once authorized by Congress, any U.S. intervention would be limited, aimed at halting Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Assad and his officials have repeatedly denied using them.
Middle Eastern markets rallied after Obama put off ordering U.S. warships in the eastern Mediterranean Sea to attack. The Dubai Financial Market General Index gained 3 percent, the biggest jump since March 2012, to 2,599.35 at the close in Dubai. The measure slid 6.6 percent last week on concern an attack would hurt tourism in the region. Stocks advanced in Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar. Stocks in Israel, at risk of being drawn into the conflict, also gained.
Assad struck a defiant pose. Speaking to a group of visiting Iranian lawmakers in Damascus, he said a U.S. strike wouldn’t end Syria’s determination to fight terrorism and that his forces can confront any foreign aggression, just as they are facing internal threats. His comments were reported by Syria’s al-Ikhbariya TV today.
A member of Assad’s inner circle, Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar, said the postponement still leaves Syria and the U.S. in a state of war. He urged fellow citizens to take “pre-emptive” action against the superpower.
“When Syria is targeted, every Syrian has the right to respond with all possible means available and against any U.S. or Western interest or any country linked to the aggression,” Haidar said in a phone interview.
Haidar isn’t part of the core national security advisers who map out military strategy.
Obama’s turnabout reset the decision-making in France, which became the U.S.’s principal European ally in a possible military strike after Britain’s pullout. Opposition lawmakers called on President Francois Hollande, who has wide powers to commit French forces without consulting parliament, to give the National Assembly a say on the handling of Syria.
“The risk today is that France becomes a puppet of decisions made in the U.S.,” Bruno Le Maire, a former agriculture minister, said today on BFM television. “The French should be consulted through their representatives.”
‘Coalition of Volunteers’
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault will meet tomorrow with the heads of the lower and upper houses of the legislature, as well as the chairmen of the foreign affairs and defense committees and opposition leaders. About two-thirds of French voters are against an intervention in Syria, a BVA poll for Le Parisien newspaper showed.
Turkey pressed for a military strategy that goes beyond Obama’s aim of punishing Assad for the alleged use of chemical weapons on rebel-held territory near Damascus on Aug. 21, which the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children.
Turkey, which defends NATO’s southeastern flank and borders Syria, wants a “coalition of volunteers” to topple Assad “because it’s time to stop the deaths,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on television yesterday.
The Turkish leader’s plea for regime change -- an echo of the U.S. and British rationale for invading Iraq in 2003 -- isn’t likely to attract followers, said Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara.
“By raising the idea of ‘coalition of volunteers,’ Erdogan is sending a message that Turkey may join a military coalition if the plan is to make sure that Assad is gone,” Ozcan said. “The problem is there is no volunteer for such a mission.”