A rock and a hard place

August 10, 2011 2:24 pm0 commentsViews:

The complaints against President Obama have not been few and far between in his tenure as President, and his Middle East policy is no exception. When the protests first started in Egypt, Obama shifted positions with an uncanny rapidity, from calling on order to be established, to denouncing violence, to personally calling Mubarak and demanding a “change in the status quo.” The inaction and perceived dithering cost Obama dearly in the Arab public opinion polls, a fact he seems to be keeping in mind when planning his next big announcement in the region: the demand of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s resignation.

Reports and rumors are coming in that Obama is planning on formally demanding Assad’s resignation this coming week, Thursday seems to be the day being thrown around by most speculators. This time, Obama has the speech well aligned to maximize his gains in Arab public opinion. Assad has, by most human rights groups’ estimates, killed over 2,000 Syrian protesters. That these deaths were suffered at mosques, hospitals, and schools—and that they were suffered during the holiest month in Islam nonetheless—is only one aspect of the grim reality facing many Syrians. Assad’s public opinion has likewise plummeted amongst the Arab and Islamic communities, presenting Obama with a unique opportunity to capitalize on Assad’s infamy and denounce the increasingly isolated Arab despot.

Assad’s position in the realm of Middle East politics has been tumultuous to say the least. When his father, Hafez, died in 2000, Bashar was thrust into a role he was not entirely prepared for. Indeed, as a trained ophthalmologist, he had to be called back from Europe after his elder brother and heir apparent passed away. Assad the senior was an infamous tyrant. His policies and practices were despised by many Syrians, a fact he was not oblivious to. In conversations with Dennis Ross, Clinton’s chief Middle East peace negotiator in the 90’s, Hafez was reported to have made a comment saying he could not agree to an Israeli/Syrian peace as there would be a strong possibility a Syrian would assassinate him. In 1982 Sunni and Muslim Brotherhood groups in Hama staged a revolt against Assad’s Alawite regime. The Alawites, a branch of Islam that makes up roughly 10% of the overall Syrian population, ascended to power after Assad led a bloodless intra-party coup over fellow Ba’athists in 1970. Assad’s subsequent quelling of the Hama rebellion ended with the deaths of anywhere between 10 and 40 thousand Syrians. With the protests in Syria today, and the resurgence of rebellions and regime-ordered killings in Hama, it is clear the apple has not fallen far from the tree. As President of Syria, Bashar has utilized his country’s geostrategic positioning and maintained close relations with Iran and organizations such as Hezbullah in Lebanon. Syria has oft been accused to smuggling weapons to Hezbullah, and Damascus has been the exiled home of Khaled Meshal, Hamas’ embattled military leader.

Yet Assad’s recent actions have presented even his closest allies with a stark quandary: choose to side with Assad or choose the benefits of positive Arab public opinion, the two are now mutually exclusive in some areas. When the revolutions spread to Syria, Hassan Nasrallah, the tireless and emphatic leader of Hezbullah, was unusually reserved and silent, calling the protests an Israeli and Western conspiracy. His dithering has cost him, as now there are even reports that some of the protesters in Syria have been chanting against Hezbullah and Nasrallah.

This past week King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia denounced the Syrian regime’s violence, calling for the killing to stop and criticizing Assad. Despite the staggering amount of irony associated with the King of a country that is literally trying to stop the protests of the Arab Spring speaking in favor of said protests; the King’s condemnation was more political than moral. It was a shot at a regime closely allied with Saudi Arabia’s staunch adversary in the Gulf, Iran, yet it is unlikely to have the desired effect that Abdullah wants. Assad is unlikely to relinquish power and come in peacefully after a tongue-lashing from Abdullah, but rather can be expected to cling tighter to power, and to reassert his connections with the power-brokers in Iran.

Obama’s upcoming announcement is calculated to increase his public opinion amongst Arabs in the Middle East. Coming at a time when countries like India are sending envoys to Damascus to negotiate a ceasefire, and other regional countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait are withdrawing their diplomats; Obama’s announcement has the propensity to ride a wave of public opinion in the region and international community. The intense hatred many are directing towards Assad is likely to make many Arabs look favorably on Obama’s announcement, perhaps even possibly overlooking other past perceived transgressions. As one Syrian activist, Mohammed al-Abdullah, pointed out on CNN: the American Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, was welcomed with a hero’s welcome when he visited Hama in a show of solidarity in July, precisely because he was an American, he had taken a stand, and he was there.

Grant Rumley

Grant Rumley is a Consultant in the Washington DC area. You can reach him on Twitter at @gm_rumley.

Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East