Rami G Khouri writes: Every time I visit the United States, I find without fail that the public’s awareness of the Middle East reflects a pattern that has two dimensions. The majority, which does not follow events in the region, invariably expresses those images that it absorbs from simplistic media coverage of events, usually with phrases like, “Are they ever going to solve the problems over there?” or, “Are things any quieter now over there?” to which the easiest reply is, “Oh, not really, but we hope for the best.”Those Americans who do follow events in the Middle East, however, tend to focus on only one issue at a time, perhaps because it is easier to see it in terms of single issues isolated in time and political context, rather than view the complexities and nuances of our region as they really are: interconnected, fluid and mostly negotiable, among a range of situations and actors such as Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the March 14 and March 8 alliances in Lebanon, the warring sides in Syria, and Iraq’s fragile condition in the run-up to President Barack Obama’s visit to the Middle East this month.
At the start of my current trip in the U.S. the single question that preoccupies Middle East-watchers there is what to do about Syria, and whether or not the United States should provide military assistance to the opposition groups fighting to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad. The issue is topical given the current trip to the Middle East of Secretary of State John Kerrey, who has met with the head of the main political opposition group in Syria, the Syrian National Coalition. Kerry also announced $60 million in nonlethal aid to help the opposition improve services for citizens in liberated areas.
The big question people ask is whether the U.S. should provide military aid to help the Syrian rebels improve their chances of defeating the Assad family regime. The hesitancy of the Obama administration to do this (beyond the military training that is widely assumed to be under way in Jordan) is a classic example of why American foreign policy in the Middle East is so erratic, often leading to the growth of groups that feed off anti-American sentiments.
The U.S. is reluctant to offer direct military aid to the rebels because it fears weapons might fall into the hands of groups the United States does not like, especially Islamist groups such as the Nusra Front or smaller groups with alleged affinities to Al-Qaeda that have grown rapidly in the past year and now spearhead military advances in parts of Syria. Presumably, that is because the U.S. does not want to arm Islamist or other unfriendly groups who might agitate against the U.S. or its allies, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia or Jordan.
That sounds like a reasonable policy, but in reality it is a total failure. In fact it brings about precisely that outcome that Washington says it wishes to avoid – the rise to prominence, or even dominance, of those Islamist groups the U.S. dislikes. So as the U.S. speaks boldly about bringing down the Assad regime, but does little on the critical military front to help bring this about, Islamist and other rebel groups whom the U.S. dislikes have received plenty of arms and made sustained gains militarily. They have therefore won the confidence of ordinary people across the land, enhancing the likelihood that these groups will dominate the post-Assad system of power.
Vali Nasr says: “It is not going too far to say that American foreign policy has become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations.”
So how does this apply to Obama’s thinking on Syria?
I imagine it runs something like this: Who knows how long the war in Syria will drag on? Maybe the death toll will pass 200,000. But here’s the thing we must be sure will never happen: We cannot run the risk that an American-supplied surface-to-air missile might be used to bring down an Israeli aircraft. That would be unthinkable — the rest, that’s just regrettable. After all, no one in Washington has to worry about the Free Syria Lobby.