US must reassess its ME role

US must reassess its ME role

US President Barack Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia (March 28-29) was a well-timed and urgently needed opportunity to discuss US policies in the region, in particular with regard to Syria and Iran. One objective of the visit was to ensure that whatever differences of opinion existed between Saudi Arabia and the US should not be allowed to weaken their strategic partnership. Equally important, the meeting was an occasion to reassess the situation in Syria in light of the failure of Geneva II and Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Last month, Saudi Arabia and the US marked the 69th anniversary of the historical meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, which took place on Feb.14, 1945. That historical meeting laid the foundation of a special strategic relationship that has endured many crises and disagreements over the past decades.
However, as I pointed out last month (“Will Saudi-US relations endure Syria’s debacle?” Feb.17, 2014), the Syrian conflict has tested the Saudi-US pact as never before. The US decision to embark with Russia on the “Geneva process” turned out to be failure. Instead of bringing Syria closer to peace, it has allowed the Assad regime to escalate its onslaught against civilians and regain much of the ground it had lost to the opposition. That reversal of the opposition’s fortunes is due in part to the fact that while the US reduced its support for the opposition, Assad’s allies upped their support for the regime, with heavy weapons, military advisers and fighters. The US belief in the Geneva process turned out to be misplaced. For one, the Syrian regime cynically exploited the process to gain time and reverse opposition gains. It hid behind the “respectability” of Geneva, while continuing its brutal attacks. It refused to discuss the formation of the “transitional governing authority,” which was the main principle underpinning Geneva I and the key objective of Geneva II. It was understood that Assad will have no place in that authority, after he has slaughtered tens of thousands of his own people, made millions of them homeless and inflicted unspeakable torture on the tens of thousands that he has detained. But Assad’s supporters now openly flout that understanding and insist on a role for him in upcoming “elections.” In other words, the regime has made a travesty out of Geneva. Similarly, Russia seems to have drawn the wrong lessons. Its annexation of Crimea and saber-rattling elsewhere in Ukraine appear to be inspired by that process: Its actions are premised on a belief that the US would not try to stop them, and could not if it wanted to. As in Syria, by utilizing its veto power at the UN Security Council, it also prevented attempts to mobilize international action.
The Syrian regime’s actions during and since Geneva make it clear that diplomacy is not a substitute for action on the ground to bolster moderate opposition, in the face of both the regime and extremist groups.
It is important after Geneva’s failure to go back to the basics in which most Syrians believe, as well as a majority of nations as evidenced by the voting at the United Nations and the Arab League meeting in Kuwait last week. First, the Syrian regime has lost its legitimacy and that the Syrian people have chosen the National Coalition for the Forces of Resistance and Revolution as their legitimate representative. Second, all means of support should be accorded to the Coalition; a reversal is needed soon on the ban on providing the opposition with sophisticated weapons, to neutralize the regime’s airpower, which it has used to destroy indiscriminately whole towns and neighborhoods. Stepped up training of opposition fighters is also essential. So it was welcome news from Washington last month that the Obama administration was rethinking its options in Syria. The region was looking for a more robust US approach to the problem. Similarly, the interim nuclear deal the US and its western allies have reached with Iran has not reassured its neighbors, nor has it led to improvements in Iran’s regional behavior. Iran and its regional allies have intensified their efforts to destabilize the region.
US officials have repeatedly asserted that they “will not make a bad Iran deal,” that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” and that they were determined to stop Iran from acquiring a military nuclear capability. But what do these words mean? Is a “good deal” one that ignores the fractious nature of Iranian politics and the fact that a deal reached may not bind other forces in the country? Is a good deal one that takes the words of Iran’s new government at face value, without requiring robust and permanent international supervision of all its nuclear facilities? Without ironclad guarantees that Iran would not develop a military nuclear capability, the deal would not reassure Iran’s neighbors and could lead to a fervent regional nuclear arms race. Equally important, is a “good deal” one that slows down Iran’s development of nuclear weapons while freeing its hand in Syria, to enable the regime to annihilate its opponents, at unspeakable human cost? Is a “good deal” one that allows Iran to continue its efforts to arm and fund sectarian militias and stir religious divisions throughout the region?
The US President has surely heard during his visit to Riyadh over the weekend what Saudis and others think of US policies in the region. More importantly, the facts on the ground in Ukraine, Syria and the region as a whole, make it clear that those policies are due for a reassessment. Saudis and the region as a whole are awaiting the fulfillment of US promises of exploring new approaches to the region’s problems, which could rehabilitate the US image and international role and return the Saudi-US strategic partnership to its historical path.

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