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Unfinished Business Awaits Obama’s Second Term

A former CIA officer says it’s time for the Obama administration to stop turning a blind eye to atrocities in the Middle East.

Inter Press Service

Several critical issues of unfinished business in the Middle East face President Barack Obama as he begins his second term. Washington must become more engaged come January because these issues will directly impact regional stability and security and U.S. interests and personnel in the region.

The issues include the Syrian uprising and increasing atrocities by extremist elements within the uprising, the Arab Spring and the future of democratic transitions, the growing influence of radical Salafi “jihadism” across the Arab world, Bahrain, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Pakistan, and Guantanamo and global terrorism.

The Obama administration’s engagement in these issues in the past year has been marginal and uneven, influenced largely by domestic politics and to some degree the ghost of Libya. Washington’s public support for democracy following the start of the Arab Spring was welcomed in the region, especially as dictators in Tunisia and Egypt fell precipitously.

The U.S. image became more tarnished, however, as repression escalated in Bahrain against the Shia majority and as Assad’s killing machine became more vicious, and Syria descended into a civil war.

Washington’s benign response to repression and torture in Bahrain, according to advocates of this policy, is justified by the presence of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and the special relationship with Saudi Arabia. Yet, the U.S. and its Western allies have not used their significant leverage in either country to advance democracy. Nor has the Fleet deterred the Al Khalifa regime from repressing the pro-democracy movement.

The ghost of Libya and the U.S. presidential election also drove Obama’s hesitancy to act against the Syrian dictator. During the foreign policy presidential debate before the U.S. elections, President Obama and Governor Mitt Romneyargued lamely that Syria was different from Libya, and therefore the U.S. military even under the NATO umbrella should not be used against Assad.

The fate of emerging Arab democracies and the legitimate aspirations of millions of Arab youth, which the U.S. and many countries worldwide have endorsed, should not be held hostage to political expediency or become a casualty of electoral politics.

U.S. prestige and Obama’s credibility at home and abroad will be tested by whether Washington stands with the peoples of the region against their entrenched dictators, regardless of the so-called Libyan model. Calls for justice and dignity in the Arab uprisings signaled a historic moment that resonated across the globe. The U.S. should embrace this moment and place itself on the right side of history.

President Obama was hailed across the Arab Muslim world in June 2009 when he called for engaging credible indigenous communities on the basis of common interests and mutual respect. A retreat from those ideals would be disastrous for the U.S. and its allies, especially as regime remnants and radical Salafis endeavour to derail the democratic process.

An autocratic tribal ruler in Manama, who has just revoked the citizenship of 31 Bahraini nationals, or a brutal dictator in Damascus should not turn the clock back on the moral inroads that Washington made in the region in the post-Bush era.

The unfolding of events at a dizzying speed and increasing threats to U.S. interests and personnel demand serious attempts to address theses critical issues. In his second-term, President Obama cannot remain oblivious to rising sectarianism, growing Salafi extremism, continued repression, and suppression of minorities and women.

On day one after taking office, the president must turn his full attention to Syria.

Assad must be forced out, and soon. Over 25,000 Syrians have been killed since the uprising began in early 2011, and equal numbers have been “disappeared” by the regime. Hundreds of thousands have become refugees. Atrocities committed by the regime and by some of the rebels are inflicting untold suffering on innocent civilians in Syria.

The Syrian uprising, like those in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, started peacefully. Regime intransigence and repression, however, forced the uprising to become violent. Lawlessness and the porous borders have opened Syria to radical “jihadists” from neighbouring Arab countries.

Whereas, the uprising was initially non-ideological and non-religious, the incoming “jihadists” are Sunni Salafis bent on fighting a religious war against an “infidel” dictator. These “jihadists” have exploited the factionalism of the opposition for their intolerant religious extremism.

They also gained acceptance by the poorly armed rebels because they brought in weapons and money from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and elsewhere. The rise of violent “jihadism” in Syria had been a direct consequence of continued regime intransigence.

A prolonged proxy war between Iran, which supports Assad, and Saudi Arabia, which supports the uprising, over Syria and a resurgent radical Salafi “jihad” within the insurgency cannot be good for regional stability and for the international community.

How to speed up Assad’s exit? Short of putting boots on the ground, Washington and its NATO allies, especially the UK, France, and Turkey, should declare a no-fly zone and provide the Free Syrian Army with adequate anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to fight the regime’s military machine. NATO should seek the consent of Arab and Asian countries for the Syria initiative, including patrolling the no-fly zone.

Media reports reveal that Turkey, with U.S. approval, has deployed Patriot missiles close to the Syrian border. This action seems to signal Turkey’s intention to create and possibly defend a no-fly zone. President Obama and other NATO leaders should vigorously push this action forward.

Syrian refugees cannot spend another winter in tents and under intolerable conditions.

NATO partners also should help streamline the opposition groups and recognise whatever group emerges as a legitimate political representative of Syria. Admittedly, factionalism among the rebel groups on the ground and within the Syrian National Council outside the country is a major impediment to diplomatic recognition and international action.

Once a unified leadership emerges, NATO should provide it with logistics, intelligence, and command and control training. Furthermore, Washington and London should put the Assad regime on notice that attacking Syria’s neighbours or using chemical and biological weapons in any form against any target will result in a massive military response.

Lakhdar Brahimi’s U.N.-Arab mission to Syria has failed to persuade Assad to stop the killing, and any talk of a temporary ceasefire is no more than wishful thinking. Russian and Chinese obduracy in the U.N. Security Council on Syria justifies an immediate and more robust NATO action against the regime. The Syrian dictator has already rejected British Prime Minister David Cameron’s offer for a safe passage out of Syria.

It’s morally reprehensible for the international community to remain insensitive to the continued atrocities against the Syrian people, whether by the regime or the opposition. Moral platitudes no longer cut it.

Once the regime is toppled, the international community should help the post-Assad government with economic recovery and empower the Syrian business community and entrepreneurial civil society to start creating jobs. When that happens, the “Arab Spring” would rightfully claim its fifth trophy.

Emile Nakhleh is former director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at CIA and author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World.

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