Over the past few weeks, I have come across a whole host of articles, commentaries, and social media comments that have castigated – sometimes gently, at other times less so – US President Barack Obama. Broadly, those comments zoomed in on the fact that the US president has not acted in any resolute way over Syria and that his lukewarm propensity to lead from behind meant that Syrian moderate aspirations for an end to the conflict were thwarted violently. After all, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is now an even more brutal dictator who, nonetheless, finds himself again in a somewhat politically less vulnerable place.
At the UN General Assembly this week, several world leaders – notably those of the US, Russia and France – took the podium and lambasted each other’s approach to the festering conflict in Syria. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin believes the cardinal mistake lies in the US-led coalition’s refusal to engage the Syrian president, while Obama and Hollande maintain that it is illogical to support Assad simply because he is viewed as the lesser evil. With Russia’s recent decision to amplify its own role in combating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the spotlight shines brighter on the shortcomings of the US approach.
In the Arab world, pundits are equally unforgiving. A recent opinion by Hisham Melhem entitled: Obama in the Middle East: What We’ve Got Here is failure … of Leadership, published by Al-Arabiya, was another strong indictment of the inexcusable laxity of US politics.
Hussein Ibish, in his equally recent opinion piece entitled: Obama Must Start Leading and Stop Dithering in Syria, published by The National, was perhaps slightly milder but carried the same message. And when these two observers write on Syria, I sit up and take notice.
The initial high hopes Obama raised in his address in Cairo in 2009 at the beginning of his first term withered away by his prevarications and reluctance to act when the Syrian regime crossed many treacherous red lines.
A consensus has since emerged that he is, by omission, aiding and abetting a dictator to continue with his criminal ways of crushing the Syrian people who had risen up against him. After all, the argument that ISIL must take priority in our military strategies does not carry much weight because this barbaric movement was nowhere in existence at the beginning of the unarmed uprisings in Daraa and across Syria.
is, by omission, aiding and abetting a dictator to continue with his criminal ways of crushing the Syrian people who had risen up against him.”]
It was only later that the uprising became weaponised, when proxies and mercenaries sought to gain both the ideological and literal battlegrounds. And when the regime started using barrel bombs on population centres.
Besides, is it so hard to fathom that ISIL and the Syrian regime have a symbiotic relationship where the parasite would not freely kill the host?
This reality on the ground has not changed much in recent weeks. Obama and his advisors did not suddenly begin to listen to organisations like Human Rights Watch or the White Helmets and then denounce the regime-led crimes as intolerable.
Yet, here we are witnessing a US secretary of state almost sweeping the whole Crimean/Ukrainian debacle under the carpet and voicing willingness to work mano a mano with Russia for the sake of defeating the rabid radicalism of ISIL.
We now also have a refugee influx (more of a trickle compared with the burden on Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey) from Syria that necessitates action. And according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 95 percent of all civilian deaths have been caused by the regime as most refugees are fleeing atrocities from the territories it controls, too.
The EU is in a tug-of-war between the compassionate pragmatism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the angry populism of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
So Putin now re-enters into the fray and suggests in his allocution at the UN General Assembly that everyone should support the Assad regime. Where does all this leave the US – and the EU as its obedient understudy? In my opinion, the US administration never intended to get bogged down in the complexities of Syria. After all, Obama’s predecessors fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which both proved to be disastrous and costly.
The cynic in me would say that Syria’s misfortune is that it neither has any resources, such as oil or mineral ores, nor any global strategic importance to warrant an intervention along the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine that, under customary international law, obligates first individual states and then the international community to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.
The pragmatist in me would recall olden statements by Lord Palmerston, Charles de Gaulle, and Henry Kissinger highlighting how nations make decisions by looking dispassionately at their interests rather than at allies or enemies.
Neither of those historical figures ever managed to stand by the rule. And this seems to be the case for Syria when compared with other – admittedly equally messy – countries, such as Iraq and Libya.
In the final analysis, when pundits criticise the indifference of the US administration, I would argue that they are applying a wrong benchmark. The question should not be whether the US is refusing to come to the rescue of decent Syrians.
Rather, it should ask why the US would think that it should necessarily be entangled in Syria? Or to put it more bluntly, could one not also argue that the US under the Obama Administration no longer acts as a world player and, therefore, is no longer the same hegemon of past decades?
If Syria is viewed by the US as a case that tugs at US humanitarian heart strings, then that is not a political argument. But if a case could be made to show that the US has a political interest in helping Syria toward political emancipation and human rights implementation, then the argument shifts dramatically and the response from the White House might well become more robust.
However, the US president clearly does not think that emotional arguments should influence the decisions made by the US administration. Rather, stung by Afghanistan and Iraq and uncertain of the outcome, he is applying a clinical approach and refusing to wade in with any proactive US involvement.
So, should this be defined as a US abdication of values in Syria? Not so in the president’s opinion, and that is why I believe we, too, are asking the wrong question, and hence, are struggling with the answer.
Harry Hagopian is a London-based international lawyer, political adviser and ecumenical consultant on the MENA region. He is also a second-track negotiator and works closely with European institutions.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.