by Eyal Zisser
Middle East Quarterly
Fall 2013, pp. 59-65 (view PDF)
The failure of the Bush and the Obama administrations to topple Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad goes a long way to explaining Washington’s declining Middle Eastern position. United by a distinct lack of vision, as opposed to hopes and wishful thinking, as well as determination and a coherent plan of action, these otherwise very different administrations helped erode America’s stature in the region. Widely seen as a declining superpower that has lost belief in itself and its leading role in the world, Washington earns neither fear nor respect in the Middle East.
Bush vs. Assad
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003 was a decisive moment in the history of the Middle East. True, George W. Bush acquired a demonic image in the eyes of many, both in the region and beyond, but there is no doubt that history will prove that the stand he took against the region’s dictators, including some long-standing U.S. allies, was an important factor in creating significant cracks in the Middle East’s dictatorial walls and in encouraging the calls for justice and freedom that began to be heard there. In this sense, the Bush administration’s Middle East policy, which set as its aim the promotion of democracy, was an important preparatory factor, even an accelerator, for the developments that led to the outbreak of the 2011 Arab uprisings. The Iraq invasion made a strong impression on the region’s inhabitants, strengthening Washington’s standing in their eyes as a leading world power, politically, economically, and especially, militarily and technologically. At the same time, this image of the United States was accompanied by fear and awe—and unconcealed resentment, jealousy, and even hatred. Nevertheless, the routing of Saddam Hussein’s army convinced even Iran’s ayatollahs to pause in their mad dash to achieve nuclear power.Only later, after Iraq became a treacherous swamp for Washington because of its failed policies there, did the halo of the initial victory lose its shine. Over time, the historical significance of the Saddam regime collapse lost much of its impact.
|President Obama (left) meets with Jordan’s King Abdullah II (right) at the White House, April 26, 2013, where they discussed the Syrian crisis. Obama’s initial tough talk about Syrian use of chemical weapons being a “red line” that would evoke a strong U.S. response has become something of a joke even among the war-weary Syrian citizens. In April, the president walked back his pledge demanding instead a “chain of custody” to prove who used which weapons where.|
At the same time, the war in Iraq placed the Bush administration on a collision course with Assad, who perceived the U.S. attack as being directed not only against Iraq but also against Syria. In the eyes of Damascus, the war was part of a joint U.S.-Israeli campaign directed at breaking up the Arab world and debilitating its might in order to strengthen Israel—or so the Syrians convinced themselves. It also seems that the Assad regime really believed that Washington would find it difficult to overthrow Saddam and assumed that the Vietnam war quagmire would be repeated in Iraq.
In their memoirs, both George W. Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair testify that Washington had entertained the idea of carrying the military campaign from Baghdad to Damascus and overthrowing the Assad regime. However, the initial shock experienced in the region, including by Syria, eventually wore off, especially as the U.S. administration found itself entangled in a morass of Shiite-Sunni violence in Iraq. Damascus thus concluded that it was in its interest for the United States to suffer total defeat in Iraq. As a result, the Assad regime began to turn a blind eye and even to assist the Muslim jihadis who crossed Syria on their way to fight the Americans in Iraq. Ironically, these same fighters were destined to return to Syria a decade later when the March 2011 revolution broke out there, leading a jihadist war against Assad’s “heretical” regime.
In light of this hostile course, the Bush administration came to the conclusion that the Syrian president was a clear and present danger to U.S. interests in the Middle East. However, Washington decided not to adopt a straightforward military option. Instead, U.S. leaders tried to exploit a series of opportunities that emerged in order to push Assad into a corner or even overthrow him. The steps taken were essentially political in character, but there is no evidence that they were part of an orderly or planned-out policy.
Read more at Middle East Forum
- ‘Syria is not a revolution any more – this is civil war’ (theguardian.com)