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.

In the wake of the deal with Russia, jihadists will grow far more powerful in the Syrian opposition. Moderates who argued that the West would intervene have been discredited. From the beginning, Assad’s strategy has been to turn the conflict into a battle between his government and Sunni fundamentalists, not pro-democracy moderates. He has won.

Syria’s moderate opposition made mistakes as well. It was fractious and no opposition leader emerged as a spokesman for its cause. In an essay last week, Khalid Saghieh, a Lebanese journalist, noted the failure of Syria’s opposition to overcome comparisons to Iraq or capture the imagination of Americans.

“The revolutionaries of Syria appear in this game to be effective subalterns,” he wrote. “Those who do not have a voice and who can’t speak to Western academic circles.”

Arwa Damon, a CNN correspondent, was blunter in a tweet after Obama’s Syria address.

“missing from #syria debate is how we ended up in world w/such lost moral compass & so many utterly desensitized 2 sheer suffering of others.”

Four years after Obama’s Cairo address, cynicism about the Middle East is pervasive across the American political spectrum. American influence in limited, those on the left and right argue, in a region where there are only two options: autocrats or jihadists. Trusting dictators — from Assad’s ruling clique to Egypt’s generals to the Saudi royal family — to sort out a “backward” region is viewed as pragmatic. Any military action, no matter how limited, would lead to “another Iraq.”

In Cairo, of course, Obama was not proposing more Iraq-style ground invasions. Instead, he spoke of a new relationship between the United States and the Islamic world based on “common principles” of “justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” By the time last month’s Sarin attack occurred, talk of common principles had vanished.

Critics complain that the administration veered back and forth after the Cairo speech, supporting democracy and then backing away from it. Few concrete American diplomatic initiatives or economic proposals emerged that would bolster moderates. And while the United States stepped back, Iran and Russia stepped forward into the vacuum.

Americans, exhausted from a decade of war, argued that Iraq and Afghanistan were massive American efforts to counter extremism that failed. The idea that the United States should keep trying was absurd, given the massive challenges the nation faced at home.

History may judge Obama’s platitudes in Cairo as naive and praise his disengagement from the region. Or it may view the last four years as a period when an opportunity to find common ground was lost.

I hope for the former — and fear the latter.

This article also appears at, an Atlantic partner site.