AMMAN, Jordan -- Ahmad Nemah, a midlevel Syrian rebel commander, is certain theres sound military logic behind President Barack Obamas decision to delay U.S. missile strikes against the Syrian regime, but hes having a hard time persuading his subordinates.
I know that this is not a postponement but a strategic pause to . . . set up for a surprise attack, insisted Nemah, a former colonel in Syrian air force intelligence. Of course, people are depressed, and Im having trouble convincing everyone that there will be a strike.
Theres a good reason why Nemah is having difficulty selling his argument to his fighters of the Free Syrian Army, the loose tangle of disparate guerrilla bands nominally backed by the United States and its European and Arab allies. Obamas abrupt decision on Saturday to delay the strikes that seemed just hours away is being seen in the region as the latest confirmation of an incoherent U.S. approach of mixed messages and unfulfilled threats that have driven Americas standing to a new low.
Washington doesnt understand the Middle East. His (Obamas) image here is of someone who is afraid of getting enmeshed in the machinations of the Middle East, said Maher Abu-Teyr, a political columnist with Ad-Dustour, a semi-official Jordanian daily newspaper. There is no trust in Washington in the area because (people) think Obama is weak.
He cited a constant change in rhetoric and hesitation by the United States since the brutal conflict erupted in Syria in mid-2011. Among other missteps, he said, was the U.S. reluctance to take action early in the conflict that might have bolstered moderate rebel factions before the rise of al Qaida-linked groups, which now dominate the opposition.
Obama should have moved in the first six months of the Syria crisis, not now, said Abu-Teyr. Now, all of his choices are very difficult because he took all of this time.
Obama has shifted several times since the August 2012 red line he first set against Syrian President Bashar Assads use of chemical weapons. After cautioning Assad against even moving a whole bunch of chemical weapons around, he didnt enforce the warning when the regime allegedly was detected in December mixing components for the nerve gas sarin, or when in March the United States followed Britain and France in accusing Assad of having used chemical weapons on a small scale.
The United States repeatedly has demanded that Assad leave power. But it has failed to forge a viable alternative from the feud-riven opposition factions comprising the U.S.-constructed Syrian Opposition Coalition, which the United States and others have called the sole legitimate representative of Syrias 20 million people.
Even if Obama with or without congressional approval orders U.S. warships in the Mediterranean to loose retaliatory strikes against the Syrian regime, the limited operation, which U.S. officials say wouldnt be aimed at toppling Assad, may do little to restore Washingtons credibility. Moreover, they could carry significant costs for the security of the United States and its allies, experts said.
Washington could be dragged deeper into the conflict as a defiant Assad bolstered by unwavering support from Russia and Iran intensifies offensives to regain lost ground. More civilian deaths could make already long-shot prospects for peace talks even more remote while driving destabilizing flows of refugees now estimated at 5,000 per day into adjacent Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.