Did U.S. President Barack Obama really decide to indefinitely postpone the attack on Syria, citing the legality of the decision, or was this a clever disinformation maneuver meant to ensure that the American strike will be as effective as possible?
If, as it appears, he simply delayed the action to an undefined later date, then Obama's speech may have been the Nobel Peace Prize laureate's last attempt to preserve his clean reputation as a promoter of peace while simultaneously communicating to the world that his country is still the leader of the free world in values and international conduct.
Handing off the decision to Congress, justifying the move by saying that the U.S. is a democratic nation, is nearly without precedent since World War II. When it comes to all the major wars in which the U.S. has been involved in over the last hundred years, the decision to strike was made exclusively by the president. Waiting for congressional confirmation essentially means avoiding striking while the iron is hot and generally ignoring the possible strategic changes in the immediate future, which could prevent an American assault for a variety of reasons.
Beside the strategic ramifications, this is also a serious blow to U.S. leadership in the existing international order. The American president is now poised to attend the G-20 summit in Saint Petersburg next week, as someone who backtracked at the last minute for reasons not entirely clear to parts of the international community.
Three completely different audiences listened closely to Obama's speech on Saturday: Syria and its leaders; Russia and China; and the U.S. allies in the Middle East, with Israel at the forefront, but also Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Syria's leaders have every reason to feel that they have won a reprieve (after all, the British have also backed down from supporting a military strike), enabling them to freely use any type of weapon at their disposal until the event of an American strike, if one should ever occur.
Setting aside the possibility that this is a case of strategic disinformation, Obama's decision constitutes a retreat into the type of isolationism that the U.S. has not seen since the 1920s. Clearly, Russia will be the big winner in this scenario: Over the last week, Russian leaders have warned Obama in various ways against staging an attack on Syria. Obama's decision to back down undermines the U.S.'s credibility and power of deterrence in the international arena while boosting the credibility of Russian threats. One possible outcome could be a deepening of the Syrian-Russia alliance, and the spreading of Russian temptations around the new Middle East regimes. China, whose presence in our region has been minimal, could also feel that its partnership with Russia served to underscore the Russian threats and cemented its own standing in the Middle East.
On the other hand, the big losers are the governments associated with the U.S. and its declining regional status. Israel, first and foremost, must now stand guard when it comes to foreign policy and security. To what degree, for example, will the U.S. back Israel if a peace deal is reached with the Palestinians and they breach it? Judging from the current situation, the U.S. will most likely issue some weak diplomatic protest, but refrain from really stepping in to support Israel, even if it is one of the signatories of the agreement in question.
Keep in mind that the U.S. recently threatened to discontinue its aid to Egypt over the military coup there, thus sabotaging one of the main pillars that hold up Israel's peace agreement with Egypt. Such a threat, which means a potential violation of the agreement, and the steps (or lack thereof) against Syria, alongside the isolationist policy, raise serious doubts regarding the logic of making any kind of concessions to the Palestinians -- certainly territorial concessions. The leaders of Jordan, a moderate, peace-seeking country threatened by Syria, are most likely also very worried by Obama's decision. Will he take action against Syria if the latter strikes Jordan in "retaliation for their support of the rebels?" Turkey, for its part, shares these concerns, and more.
The absence of a military strike immediately following the clear violation of international law (use of chemical weapons) hurts, and will continue to harm the U.S.'s standing in the international arena. One should hope that if the U.S. does attack Syria, it will do so sooner rather than later, when it may well be too late.
Alexander Bligh is the director of the Middle East Research Center at Ariel University.