UNITED NATIONS -- President Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday at the United Nations made clear that the Middle East would be a focal point of U.S. foreign policy “for the long haul,” with renewed efforts toward resolutions on Iran’s contested nuclear program, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the civil war in Syria.
However, Obama also made it clear that the United States wouldn’t be doing all the heavy lifting on those fronts and would make U.S. military action – used pre-emptively by his predecessors – a tool of last resort. That’s not welcome news to Syrian rebels or their interventionist supporters in the Persian Gulf, Europe and even within the Obama administration and Congress.
“I have made it clear that even when America’s core interests are not directly threatened, we stand ready to do our part to prevent mass atrocities and protect basic human rights. But we cannot and should not bear that burden alone,” the president said.
Obama’s speech before other world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly focused almost entirely on the Middle East and North Africa, where upheaval has dashed the administration’s plans to ease engagement and pivot to the economic promise of the more stable Asia Pacific region.
Foreign policy analysts say the speech was at times vague and contradictory, a reflection of the administration’s uneven response to the Arab Spring revolts and their messy aftermaths in Egypt, Libya and, most urgently, Syria, where more than 100,000 people have died and millions have been forced from their homes.
Obama said military action sometimes was needed to prevent mass atrocities, but he made it clear that chemical weapons were the chief U.S. interest in Syria’s vicious civil war – not U.S. intervention to stop the bloodshed.
He praised Iran’s leaders for making overtures to reassure the West that its nuclear program was peaceful, but he demanded that Iran – along with Russia – withdraw support for Syrian President Bashar Assad. Obama praised Assad at one point for submitting a list of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles as part of a U.S.-Russian deal, but he also called the Syrian leader a murderer who’d lost legitimacy and had to go.
“A leader who slaughtered his citizens and gassed children to death cannot regain the legitimacy to lead a badly fractured country,” Obama said. “The notion that Syria can return to a prewar status quo is a fantasy.”
The problem with that statement, analysts said, is that Obama’s administration still doesn’t have an answer to the natural follow-up question: If Assad goes, who’s going to take charge?
“There are many signs that Tehran is interested in a nuclear compromise, but I haven’t seen any signs that they’re preparing to abandon Assad,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “On the contrary, I suspect Iran will try to convince the U.S. that the takfiri alternative is more dangerous to them both,” he added, alluding to the extremists who make up the most successful rebel militias.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition, plagued by infighting and beholden to Saudi Arabia and other foreign powers, isn’t yet prepared to administer a post-Assad landscape populated by regime loyalists, Iranian operatives, rebel jihadists and traumatized, displaced families. The opposition’s fighting front, the Supreme Military Council, suffers many of the same ills, and it’s regularly outmaneuvered by al Qaida-style extremists who are ostensibly on the same side.