Why Syria Won’t Help President Obama Earn His Nobel Prize

BARIN KAYAOĞLU

13 May 2013

Obama’s Nobel

I remember having mixed reactions back in 2009 when President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. On the one hand, just like many people in the United States and around the world, I was excited about his presidency. He looked, spoke, and acted differently than his predecessor, George W. Bush.

On the other hand, I knew how past presidents had earned the famed peace award. Theodore Roosevelt won it in 1906 for brokering peace between Russia and Japan. Thirteen years later, Woodrow Wilson became a Nobel laureate for ending World War I. Jimmy Carter was given the award in 2002 not only because of his global human rights advocacy after leaving the Oval Office, but also because of his indispensable role in the Camp David Accords that secured peace between Israel and Egypt in 1978.

I was worried that the immense weight of the Nobel would raise expectations so high that – much like a child prodigy cracking under pressure and failing to reach his full potential – Mr. Obama would not be able to accomplish a great deal on the international scene.

To be sure, the American president has had impressive foreign policy accomplishments. He successfully guided the new nuclear arms reduction treaty (new START) with Russia through what could’ve been an impossible Senate ratification. His cautious approach to the Libyan Revolution in 2011 and his reluctance to go to war with Iran for its controversial nuclear program are also commendable. But the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize should earn the award by averting a major war or alleviating massive suffering, especially if he or she happens to be a current president of the United States.

Obama’s Allies and Adversaries in Syria

I was hoping that Syria would give Mr. Obama that opportunity but I don’t think that’s going to happen. The last time I wrote about Syria fifteen months ago, I had ended on a pessimistic (and somewhat banal) note: “Half-hearted political talk will certainly not solve Syria’s tragedy. But determined action may not be the answer either.” 70,000 dead Syrians later, I’m sorry to see that I have yet to be corrected.

The problem facing the President is that two of America’s Middle Eastern allies which are most involved in the Syrian crisis – namely, Turkey and Qatar – are pursuing policies that undermine U.S. interests. While Washington hopes to end the conflict on a negotiated settlement – the guns fall silent, an interim government takes over, and the Syrian people decide their future in free and fair elections – Ankara and Doha arm Sunni extremists, most notably Al-Nusra Front, which recently announced its allegiance to Al-Qaeda, the group that carried out the attacks of September 11, 2001. Al-Nusra is busy replacing the Free Syrian Army as the main insurgent group in Syria.

Although last week’s agreement between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to convene a conference with the representatives of the Syrian opposition and the government of President Bashar Assad is a step in the right direction, unfortunately, it may be too little too late. While Turkey and Qatar support the likes of al-Nusra, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are also supplying Syrian insurgents. With Russian and Iranian backing, however, the Assad regime is holding fast and creating a deadlock: the Syrian president cannot crush the insurgents nor can they overthrow him. To paraphrase Churchill’s maxim about Russia, Syria is now a revolution wrapped in a civil war inside a Middle East-wide power struggle.

Not even Mr. Obama’s good relations with the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, can help the United States to break the Syrian knot. The two leaders are scheduled to meet in Washington on 16 May. Even if the American president makes a convincing case that Turkish support for Sunni insurgents is making the war in Syria bloodier, longer, and harder to end, it may not have an effect. In the aftermath of the car bombings in the Turkish town of Reyhanlı on the Syrian border two days ago, Mr. Erdoğan maintained his combative and defiant tone; he is not the type to admit mistakes and change course.

It would have been great for the United States if Mr. Erdoğan had the power to topple the Assad regime singlehandedly. The problem is that neither Turkey nor any of Washington’s regional allies – except perhaps Israel – would be able to pull off a military operation against Assad without U.S. support. After the Syrian military shot down a Turkish jetfighter last year, civilian and military leaders in Ankara realized the immense costs of the fight for Syria. The allegations of the use of chemical weapons sobered them once again. The Jordanians, Saudis, or Qataris would also be very hesitant to engage Assad head-on for similar reasons. As for the Israelis, despite their capabilities, it would be foolish of them to hand a golden opportunity to Damascus and Tehran to make the case that the uprisings in Syria are part of a “Zionist plot.”

The American president is wise to be pensive.
The American president is wise to be pensive.

“Birds in the Sky” without “Boots on the Ground”?

Mr. Obama has signaled his refusal to commit “boots on the ground” in Syria repeatedly. But he is coming under immense pressure to change course. In late 2012, the Obama administration had threatened the Assad regime that, the use of chemical weapons against the insurgents constituted a “red line.” Crossing that line, Washington said, would result in U.S. military action. Now, Senator John McCain, the president’s opponent in the 2008 election and an adamant advocate of U.S. humanitarian interventions, is taking the president to task after reports that chemical weapons were indeed used in Syria. Mr. McCain wonders if the Obama “red line” was written on “disappearing ink.”

Likewise, Vali Nasr, a renowned Middle East expert and State Department adviser in the first Obama administration, pointed out how, if Syria were to become another Somalia in the heart of the Middle East, it would seriously hurt U.S. interests and regional security. The proponents of using U.S. airpower against the Assad regime argue that it could bring the Syrian civil war to a swift and less bloody conclusion.

Indeed, American “birds in the sky” may prevent the need for “boots on the ground.” Or, American birds could very well be combined with Turkish, Saudi, Qatari, and Jordanian boots on the ground. Unfortunately, even then a resolution to the Syrian conflict may not come, especially if Iranian and Lebanese Shia boots respond in kind.

The irony with the current deadlock in Syria is that, if Mr. Obama wants to resolve it on America’s terms, he would have to act like his maligned predecessor and go it alone (or preferably with “a coalition of the willing”). In fact, unlike Mr. Bush in Iraq in 2002-03, Mr. Obama may actually find many eager regional partners to topple Bashar Assad. Yet, it’s highly unlikely that the American people and their president will walk down that road – unless, of course, Mr. Obama decides to return his Nobel Prize.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Virginia and a predoctoral fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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