Does Syria Represent Obama's Final Pivot Away From the Middle East?

The decision not to intervene may signal a broader strategic shift away from the region. 
Obama addresses the nation about Syria. (Evan Vucci/Reuters)

It started as “a new beginning” and ended as “America is not the world’s policeman.”

Between President Barack Obama’s historic 2009 address to the Islamic world in Cairo to his address to the American people on Syria last week, Obama has zigged and zagged on Mideast policy, angering supporters and detractors alike.

But he has stuck to a clear pattern: reduce American engagement, defer to regional players and rely on covert operations to counter terrorism.

The administration has had its achievements. It revived Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and its new agreement with Russia will likely remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal. To the delight of Americans outside the Beltway and dismay of mandarins inside it, Obama is testing the premise that the United States can walk away from the Middle East.

The agreement with Russia is the latest example. In a chaotic 24-day period recounted in this Wall Street Journal piece, the administration’s de facto policy in Syria has shifted from “Assad must go” to “Assad’s chemical weapons must go.”

There will be ups and downs in the implementation of the agreement but Assad will likely carry it out. After narrowly avoiding American strikes, he will not want to risk attack again. Throughout the two-and-a-half-year war, the Syrian leader has proven adept at increasing or decreasing the level of brutality he employs, depending on the international outcry it provokes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, wisely brokered the Geneva deal before the release of Monday’s report by U.N. inspectors confirming the August 21st Sarin gas attack that provoked the crisis . The report will cause an initial outcry — which will fade over time.

As the Geneva framework is implemented, Assad will use conventional weapons — and Russian and Iranian conventional military support — to remain in power. He does not need chemical weapons to crush the opposition.

And there is now virtually no chance of an American military strike in Syria. If Obama was ever going to use force, it was in the immediate aftermath of the Sarin attack. The bipartisan opposition that emerged when he asked Congress to vote on the issue showed how politically treacherous a strike would be.

In another sign of how Obama is stepping back from the region, he framed an attack on Syria as an effort to deter the use of chemical weapons, not remove a brutal dictator from power. The president’s lofty rhetoric of Cairo — “these are not just American ideas; they are human rights” — became the realpolitik of Syria — “It is beyond our means to right every wrong.”

While Obama described any attack as a “limited strike,” there was clearly a secondary military impact. Cruise missiles might have destroyed Assad’s air force — and potentially shifted the momentum in the conflict. Supporters of a strike argued that an attack would bolster moderate rebels who have long argued that the United States and Europe would aid them. Skeptics said a strike would have aided jihadists.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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