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To Mideast, U.S. policy on region seems adrift

Middle East friends and foes alike seem to find President Obama's lack of decisiveness confounding.

September 02, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Jeffrey Fleishman and Paul Richter
  • In Cairo, Egyptians protest against possible U.S. strikes in Syria.
In Cairo, Egyptians protest against possible U.S. strikes in Syria. (Lefteris Pitarakis / Associated…)

BEIRUT — President Obama's surprise decision to seek congressional approval for military strikes on Syria reinforces a growing image across much of the Middle East of a regional U.S. policy that is adrift at a time of perilous change.

The announcement Saturday, after a week of tough rhetoric on Syria, comes at the end of a hard summer for Obama on thorny issues stemming from the "Arab Spring" uprisings two years ago. In Egypt, the U.S. appears to have alienated not only the new military-led government, but Islamists, nationalists and liberals as well with its approach to the July 3 coup that ousted the country's first democratically elected government.

On Syria, Obama has been deeply reluctant to get involved militarily. But he finds himself ensnared in his own rhetoric of a year ago establishing a "red line" against the use of chemical weapons.

Looming in the background is another issue that is a major concern, not only for Washington but for many of its allies — including Israel. That is Iran.

George W. Bush was derided in much of the region as wrongheadedly decisive, especially in ordering the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Obama took office promising a new beginning in relations with the Islamic world. But he has been assailed as vacillating and unable to craft a coherent strategy for multiple crises.

The new military-backed government in Egypt, a strategic ally for decades, is increasingly dismissive of U.S. interests. Money from the Persian Gulf is pouring in to replace U.S. aid and U.S. influence. And the conflict in Syria serves as the focus for deep animosities between Sunni and Shiite Muslims — which also have reemerged with force in Iraq.

The U.S. threat to launch cruise missiles against Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons in Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21 could be partly aimed at reestablishing a sense of U.S. control in the region, said Moataz Salama of Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "But the situation in the region is too big for the U.S."

In Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Assad said Sunday during a meeting with a visiting parliamentarian delegation from Iran, Syria's close ally, that his country "is capable of facing up to any external aggression."

Deputy Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad was quoted in official media accounts saying that Obama "was clearly hesitant, disappointed and confused" during his statement Saturday.

Key U.S. allies such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Syrian opposition were pushing for a quick strike against Assad's government — and already disappointed by Obama's declaration that military action would be limited and not aimed at removing Assad from power.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had assailed the U.S. plan as a "hit-and-run" attack, and called for a sustained bombardment to push Syria's government "to the point of collapsing." In Cairo on Sunday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal urged the Arab League to back a U.S. strike against Syria.

Both of their countries have supported an effort to arm the Syrian rebels. But neither Saudi Arabia nor Turkey, which has a large, modern military and a 500-mile border with Syria, has indicated a willingness to join a U.S. attack.

Egypt, meanwhile, was among several nations at the Arab League meeting opposed to foreign intervention in Syria's civil war.

Analysts say that although not all the region's problems are Washington's fault, the U.S. tends to get the blame — and its inability to establish some coherence in the region makes matters worse.

"Everyone is accusing them of things that may not necessarily be real, but in any case there are negative feelings toward American policy in the region," said Gamal Soltan, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. "There are many examples of how their policy here is confused."

In one much-cited instance, the Obama administration seemed to agonize about whether to label as a coup the military takeover that ousted Egypt's Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, and ultimately declined to do so.

Now, in a sign of growing disdain for Obama, placards waved by pro-military demonstrators in Cairo depict Obama as wearing a beard like Osama bin Laden's. They accuse Obama of siding with Morsi in a struggle between Islamists and secularists over Egypt's future.

The outgoing U.S. ambassador, Anne Patterson, had to defend herself against accusations by a prominent newspaper editor that she was complicit in a plot that would have seen Egypt's south secede.

Islamists are no happier, citing Washington's decision not to cut $1.3 billion in annual military aid to protest the coup.

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