Opinion: Obama’s tenuous Middle East coalition

President Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly last week. (Peter Foley/EPA file photo)
By Jeffrey Laurenti
President Obama devoted nearly half of his 39-minute address at the United Nations General Assembly last week appealing to world leaders and publics to join in turning back the Islamic State offensive in Syria and Iraq. By the time the last of the U.N. speeches had ended, it was clear that the international buy-in to Obama’s carefully crafted strategy is still tentative and fragile.

The same may be said of public support for it in the United States.

There is, to be sure, apparently universal loathing for the extremists who this year have broken out of their stronghold in eastern Syria and overrun much of northwestern Iraq. The Security Council unanimously approved Obama’s resolution mandating that all countries ban their citizens’ travel to enlist in terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Al-Nusra.

Still, the coalition to roll back and destroy the Islamic State remains tenuous. The strategy itself is delicately balanced to keep on board the Wahhabist Sunni Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are apparently much more exercised about the survival of the secular authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria than about the Islamic State’s expansion into Iraq. Hence, the strategy includes aid to the anti-Assad fighters of the Free Syrian Army, duly “vetted” by Washington.

On the other hand, the reconstituted government in Baghdad that Obama is most eager to assist emphatically opposes any military action that would weaken Assad’s forces in Syria. Iraq’s new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi insists that he “totally” rejects any Gulf Arab states joining air strikes against the Islamic State within Iraq. Americans and Europeans provide all the help Iraq needs, he says.

The Iraqis are in sync with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, who observed in New York: “You cannot fight [both] ISIS and the government in Damascus together.” Russia’s Sergey Lavrov, another Assad ally now providing aid to Baghdad as well, claims vindication: “We warned against a temptation to make allies with almost anybody who proclaimed himself an enemy of B. Assad…. Better late than never.”

With so much of official Washington invested in the apparently failed campaign to overthrow Assad, Obama has pointedly refused any collaboration with him against Islamic State – yet he made a point of officially notifying his ambassador at the United Nations when U.S. air strikes inside Syria were about to begin. Obama’s U.N. address castigated “the brutality of the Assad regime,” but in calling for “an inclusive political transition,” he conspicuously did not repeat the worn refrain that Assad must go.

It was French president François Hollande, not Obama, who told the General Assembly that Assad’s opponents are “the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” But France and Britain are the last of the anti-Assad interventionists outside the Arabian peninsula. Leaders of both Germany and Italy have declined to join the air strikes inside Syria’s borders, and the only prescription that King Abdullah of Jordan offered for Syria was to “get the moderate opposition and the regime back to the negotiating table immediately.”

Actually, restarting the peace talks should not be the first priority. Far more urgent is to achieve an immediate cease-fire between Damascus and the Free Syrian Army, allowing both sides a respite from the grinding war — and a cooling-off period before talks on a political settlement begin. Assad’s backers in Moscow and Tehran should have as much of an interest in an extended truce as Obama.

Obama met last month with the leaders of the Christian churches in Syria and Iraq, both Orthodox and Catholic, who have been alarmed by the jihadists’ murderous persecution of their flocks. “I know Assad has been good for the Christians,” Obama acknowledged to the prelates, the patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church recently told me, “but at the same time he is killing people by the thousands, which is pretty un-Christian, and un-Muslim.”

Like most of Syria’s Christians, the patriarch fears all the anti-Assad militias, including those blessed by Washington. Yet he left the meeting with Obama reassured that the president actually “understands the issue” and recognizes that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a catastrophe for Iraqi Christians. Curiously, the concerns of the region’s ancient Christian communities have had little purchase in Washington, where for three years interventionists have taunted Obama for his non-adventurism. There may be some irony in Obama proving to be most sensitive to them.

At the United Nations, it was the Vatican secretary of state, cardinal Pietro Parolin, who provided the most measured rebuttal to the Washington war fever. “The framework of international law offers the only viable way of dealing with this urgent challenge” of jihadi terrorism, Parolin said, recalling the disastrous consequences when “unilateral solutions have been favoured over those grounded in international law.”

The American public seems equally cautious. Congressional candidates on the campaign trail report an eerie silence among voters about the war brewing in the region: They seem upset by beheadings, indifferent to bombing, but alarmed by House Speaker John Boehner’s call for boots on the ground. Obama’s delicate juggling act seems as far as they will go — and probably not for long.

Jeffrey Laurenti of Trenton is a foreign affairs analyst who directed the international policy programs at the United Nations Association-USA and the Century Foundation. A version of this article was published in The Huffington Post.

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