Obama unleashed

Don’t underestimate Obama’s ability to inspire change in the last quarter of his presidency.

The last thing Obama needed was obstacles from within, writes Denselow [AP]
The last thing Obama needed was obstacles from within, writes Denselow [AP]

It is a well worn cliche of any political memoir that world leaders bemoan their inability to wield true power and look back on what they weren’t able to do rather than what they were. The “lame duck” period ahead of an election typifies this theme. Yet US President Barack Obama, for so long shackled by a pragmatic belief in compromise within the structures of US power, may be at his most radical now that the midterms have delivered a Republican-controlled Senate.

Obama’s bold position on immigration is dominating the US political bandwidth with Republicans furious at his “unilateral abuse” of presidential power. No longer having to triangulate policy through one of the most negative Republican Congresses in modern history may be a catalyst for a dynamic and unpredictable period of US politics ahead. In foreign policy terms, the Middle East continues to dominate the inbox of outstanding issues and Syria watchers could be in line for an important recalibration of what the US role in the region looks like. 

To embark on this new direction, the last thing Obama needed was obstacles from within and chucking Chuck Hagel should come as no great surprise following the defence secretary’s infamous Syria memo criticising the administration back in October. Obama won’t likely have a replacement in office until January so has to carry more personal responsibility than ever over the tricky question as to whether the US is doing too much or too little in the Middle East.

Unimaginative and unresponsive

On Syria, the debate over what to do has been unimaginative, unresponsive and generally completely unfitting to the scale of the issue. We should not forget the recent IRC research that described the conflict as the “worst humanitarian crisis to strike the Middle East in at least a century”. While Obama has a plan for his ISIL strategy, it has prioritised keeping the coalition together over answering harder questions on what to do for a longer term Syria strategy. It is one thing to kill hundreds of ISIL fighters but can Obama construct a strategy that saves millions of Syrians?

No escape from despair for displaced Syrians

Indeed with now half of the country displaced from their homes, you could argue that the US is at risk of formulating a Syria strategy too late to save a Syria that has already ceased to be.

Politics is about both priorities and a sense of what is possible. For too long the debate on Syria has been simplified into the future of one man. An emboldened Obama has to look beyond Assad to the millions of Syrians who have lost homes, loved ones and any sense of future as we approach the fourth anniversary of the crisis.

The humanitarian response is often seen only as a reaction to the symptoms of the conflict rather than the core of it but if the people are placed front and centre a host of consequences are possible.

Let me outline some of the tools of this “Syrians first policy” surge that Obama could explore; firstly recognising the scale of the crisis requires leadership on its longer term ramifications. Obama should respond to louder demands for the larger scale repatriation of refugees to US. The Syrian crisis cannot be contained in either Syria or the immediate region and helping the most vulnerable with a chance to rebuild some sense of life in countries that can offer stability and security is a humanitarian prerogative.

Bringing wider responsibility and resources to the humanitarian response can then allow the US to credibly push for the regional states to ensure that their borders remain open.

Humanitarian response

Secondly, as winter approaches the underfunding of the appeals that put food in the mouths and blankets on the shoulders of Syrian refugees must be met. While the US has certainly played its role, it needs to put more pressure on others to make sure they have done too. Bringing wider responsibility and resources to the humanitarian response can then allow the US to credibly push for the regional states to ensure that their borders remain open.  

Thirdly, the US could put serious thought into Turkish-led discussions as to safe havens or protected zones in the north of Syria. Obama’s ISIL policy in Syria has failed to address what will backfill the degrading of the extremist group in these parts of the country as the “moderate Syria Opposition” is far from being able to carry that burden at this time and may not be for years.

The KRG in Iraq remains a testament to how a policy can avoid existential questions of regime change but still answer the humanitarian prerogative, but only genuine leadership for the world’s most powerful countries can chart the course to a similar entity emerging from the apocalyptic rubble of Syria.

Obama unleashed could develop a policy towards Syrians rather than Syria – which is increasingly a zombie state, missing half of its population from their homes and searching for a future not defined by death and despair. 

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

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