Is U.S. Policy in Syria Changing?

I was struck a few days ago when I read U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement in Riyadh, after talks with the Saudi Arabian leadership, that the United States had neither “the legal authority nor desire” to intervene in Syria.

I was struck a few days ago when I read U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement in Riyadh, after talks with the Saudi Arabian leadership, that the United States had neither “the legal authority nor desire” to intervene in Syria. This brief comment seems to have gotten lost amidst the much more dramatic news about Iran, Egypt or Palestine-Israel negotiations, but it is worth asking if this is a new American posture on Syria and other issues in the region that might invite American or other foreign intervention. On the other hand, it could just be another typical example of a global power calling on its capacity for hypocrisy to get out of an awkward situation.

In either case, this is certainly worth examining, because if Kerry is sincere this attitude to the Syrian issue could have important implications for other situations. The most fascinating part of the comment was about the United States not having the “legal authority” to intervene, which raises many questions. Did he mean that the American president required the approval of Congress before intervening militarily, or did he mean that some kind of international mandate was needed to provide legitimacy for any intervention?

I suspect he probably meant the former, meaning that Congress should approve any American intervention, but this is slightly suspect because the United States is already providing Syrian rebels with light weapons, technical aid and training. Maybe he meant that any expansion of American assistance to the anti-Assad forces would need a legal mandate from the Congress; but this is unlikely to happen in view of the great caution that Congress showed when it seemed to oppose Barack Obama’s threat to attack Syria a few months ago in retaliation for the Damascus government’s alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people.

It would be a great step forward for all concerned if the United States were to be adopting the position that a credible international legal mandate were needed for it to get involved militarily in a bigger way in Syria. The sole international body that can confer such a mandate is the UN Security Council; but it is impossible for Washington to get approval there for more military action to bring down the Assad government, given Russia’s veto in the council. So this route for legitimizing any heightened American militarism in Syria also appears closed.

The second part of Kerry’s statement, about the United States not having the desire to intervene militarily in Syria, is equally fascinating, given that the U.S. has intervened militarily in many places in the region and is already involved in providing the anti-Assad rebels with military support of various kinds. What kind of “desire” is this that the United States simultaneously lacks and exercises across the Middle East?

He also said in Riyadh that Washington would continue to support moderate forces in the opposition, but was worried about the growing strength and role of Islamist forces in the opposition. So we are not talking here about the United States totally dropping its support for Syrian rebels, but rather trying to identify “moderate” groups in the opposition that it could support without inadvertently strengthening Islamist groups that would turn around and attack American interests or allies, as happened decades ago in Afghanistan.

The American position on Syria is peculiar, but not unusual. Washington has repeatedly taken contradictory positions on issues in the Middle East that end up leaving it and its allies confused and directionless. On Arab-Israeli negotiations, for example, the United States says it wants to broker a two-state solution but in view of its declared guarantee of the superiority of Israel over any combination of Arab neighbors it seems unable or unwilling to prod the required change in Israeli colonization policies that are needed to achieve the two-state solution. Similarly on the Arab uprisings across the region, Washington declares its support for Arabs fighting for their freedom, rights and dignity, yet also maintains strong support for Arab governments that seem to resist providing those rights to their citizens.

One of the reasons the United States is now in the process of adjusting its policies and relations with key Middle Eastern states—notably Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt—is that the contradictions of the past have simply accumulated to such a large extent that Washington probably finds it difficult to conduct any kind of coherent foreign policy at all. The United States has gotten itself into a situation where all its key allies in the region—Arabs, Iranians, Turks and Israelis—have major problems and disagreements with it, and are not afraid to spell these out in public in some cases.

Is Kerry’s statement this week that Washington lacks both the mandate and the desire to intervene further in Syria a small first sign that the United States may be coming to grips with the self-imposed constraints of its own contradictions of recent decades?

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global