Is the United States on the verge of another strategic failure in the Middle East? That question will be answered only when the outcome of the conflict in Syria becomes clear. The Syrian conflict is not only between the Assad regime and the Syrian dissenters; it is also between the U.S. and its allies (including Turkey) on one side, and Iran (and to a certain extent Russia) on the other. The battle is over influence in the Middle East. Washington wasted time, failing to accurately read the political map, and despite its current attempts to compensate, it may already be too late.
The coming days will reveal whether or not a cease-fire agreement can be struck between the ruling regime and the rebels in Syria. While nothing is ever final, U.N. and Arab League-sponsored diplomatic efforts are, at this stage, serving the interests of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, there is no indication that the political and military clique surrounding Assad is losing its grip on power. International calls for Assad to step down have ceased, and he is even seen as a potential peace partner.
Looking at the situation from a wider diplomatic perspective, the country that stands to gain the most from Assad's survival, and possible empowerment, is Iran – Assad's biggest diplomatic, military, and financial backer. If the Baath regime remains intact, Iran will reap the geopolitical and strategic fruits, at least partially, as it strives for regional hegemony. Iran will enter nuclear talks with the West, scheduled to begin next week, with more leverage. This will manifest itself, or perhaps is already manifesting itself, in mounting Iranian audacity (it remains to be seen whether U.S. President Barack Obama's generous offers regarding Iran's "civilian" nuclear program haven't already whet Iran's appetite).
Tehran is surely also encouraged by Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz's recent declaration that he doesn't consider the Iranian nuclear program to be such a big threat. All this will result not only in the erosion of the U.S.' status in the region, but also in an increase in the potential threat Syria and Iran pose to Israel, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia.
Today, the U.S. is aware of what is at stake, even if it is a little late. The increasingly decisive remarks by American administration spokespeople are clear evidence of this. In the not-so-distant past, Washington refused to commit to any particular stance – on the one hand they called for Assad's ouster and humanitarian aid for the rebels, and on the other hand they opposed aggressive measures. Like they did in Libya, the U.S. administration was content to "lead from behind" – providing support from the rear, not on the front lines.
In a Washington Post article, former U.S. ambassador to Israel Matin Indyk explained that this is characteristic of U.S. President Barack Obama's foreign policy – as long as U.S. interests aren't directly affected. But supporting from behind could mean being left behind. Will that be the fate of the American policy when the epilogue of the Syrian conflict is written?
Indyk's article also reflects the criticism against Obama's overall Middle East policy, not just in Syria. He wrote that "despite his Cairo speech, despite his time growing up in Indonesia, despite his effort to pressure Israel to freeze settlements and despite his withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Obama enters his re-election campaign with his own popularity (and that of the United States) in the broader Islamic world mired at levels similar to those of the late George W. Bush presidency."
Last week, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in a different article in the Washington Post, asked a poignant question about American attitudes toward the Middle East, namely the Arab Spring: Won't abandoning basic national U.S. interests in the Middle East in favor of supposed humanitarian and democratic endeavors ensure the demise of both? In other words, Kissinger is wondering if eventually, Obama's policy will not only hurt the U.S.' strategic and geopolitical standing, but it will also undermine the democratic and humanitarian values that the Obama administration purports to endorse. Good question.