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Case Analysis 02 March, 2013

US Shifting Stances on the Syrian Revolution


The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

Through the appointment of US Senator John Kerry as Secretary of State in place of Hillary Clinton, the administration of President Barack Obama is keen to show a new approach to resolving the Syrian crisis -now approaching two years since it first started. What does this tactic consist of? Is there a new American stance on Syria, given the paralysis of the US stance since August 2011, when the US demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad steps down and warned him against the use of chemical weapons? Does Kerry's visit to the region come with new ideas? Or is his mission part of the US administration's policy of appearing to be doing something, showing an intention to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but failing due to the circumstances and complications of the local, regional, and international scene? Assuming that Kerry is indeed bringing new ideas to the table-confirmed by his repeated claims that he wants to push Bashar al-Assad to change his plans- are these "new ideas" part of an American escalation against the regime, or a retreat toward adopting the Russian position in dealing with the Syrian crisis?

The US Position: from Calls for Reform to Calls for Resignation

During the first two months of the Syrian revolution- from mid-March to mid-May 2011- the United States was  counting on the regime  to put into effect reforms that would satisfy the demands of the protesters; thus, American statements condemning violence and urging a response to the protesters' demands were at the time limited. President Obama's administration then moved to imposing financial and economic sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad and a number of political and security officials in his regime in May.[1] These were sanctions with a symbolic value, but they did not constitute real threats to the regime and were imposed after the regime resorted to the army to quell the protest movement, with army units invading the rebellious cities, towns, and villages in Syria.

Given the US insistence on  limiting itself to sanctions, and given the limited tools of pressure that were available to the US administration, the US decided to rely on Turkey, which was in possession of political tools that could influence both the Syrian regime and the opposition. Despite the fact that the American President said - during a television interview with CBS on July 12, 2001 - that Bashar al-Assad "has lost his legitimacy due to his inability to achieve democratic transition", he did not call upon Assad to resign from the Presidency.[2] Obama finally said that Assad should step down only on August 18, 2011[3], when it became clear that the efforts of the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, during his visit to Damascus on August 9, 2011, have failed in convincing President Assad to put a stop to the "security solution." [4] However, the US later adopted a more reticent position vis-à-vis the revolution.

The stance of the United States toward the Syrian regime was even less decisive than the one adopted with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a former ally to the US, who was asked by Obama to step down just ten days after the break of Egypt's revolution.

The Policy of "Retreat"

Since his election as President in November 2008, Barack Obama has adopted an inward-looking policy, constituting a break from the policy of his predecessor, which was based on direct military intervention. This policy of retreat from foreign arenas was a result of the catastrophic policy of the neo-conservatives in Iraq, leading to escalating Arab popular anger resisting US policies. The American establishment was by then unhappy with the failure of these policies-as were the American people. Obama's new policy rested on renewing US reliance on other regional allies, in order to deal with issues that could constitute a threat to US interests or those of America's allies.

The Obama administration thus began to focus more on the rise of China, on the security, political, and economic levels, leading the Asia/Pacific region to climb at the forefront of America's foreign policy priorities. The trend toward cutting down on military expenditures has also led to the plan to end the US military presence in Afghanistan. America's allies interpreted the withdrawal of one of the two US aircraft carriers in Arabian Gulf on February 2013 as an indication of the decline of the relative importance of the Arabian Gulf region and the Middle East in US strategy, especially given the immense discoveries of shale oil and gas in the United States (the US is expected to become the world's largest natural gas producer by 2015, and the largest oil producer by 2017). Indeed, the seeming American loss of interest in the region is, in fact, an indication that the US no longer wishes to embark on direct military confrontations in the region as long as its interests are not threatened.

The Arab revolts have clearly exposed the US retreat from direct intervention as a method and as a strategy. These revolutions, however, have also forced Washington to revise its foreign policy in the Middle East which consisted- under Obama- in maintaining the status quo of existing regimes. Since his arrival to the White House, President Obama has worked to cement his country's alliances with Arab regimes, after the attempts of his predecessor to impose change, led to the involvement of the United States in costly military adventures and to creating tension with some allied Arab regimes. Undeniably, the Arab revolutions took the Americans and the others by surprise, undermined the status-quo and prompted a revision of US policy seeking to adapt to the inevitable changes - as opposed to encouraging them. At a time when the US had ceased to justify its interventionist policies with the "exporting democracy" argument, America felt compelled to explain its position vis-à-vis these national revolutions that were sparked by Arab populations longing for democracy. As soon as the US began to adapt to the new situation, its policy was criticized by Gulf allies who warned against America's tolerance of the rise of the Islamists, pointing to the repercussions of its easy abandonment of its ally, Mubarak. This stand deeply affected America's allies in the region - including some who have made it their quest to quash any democratic aspirations and experiments.

The position of the US toward the Syrian revolution was formulated in a context where the US was not working on promoting change, but equally did not attempt to prevent it. The US tried rather to adapt to change, adopting a strategy that would not draw the US into direct military intervention. At the same time, this strategy would enable the US to control the influx of change and its ramifications through other political means.

Significant gaps are thus clear between the activism of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the frenetic initiatives of the former US Ambassador in Damascus - Robert Ford - with the opposition, and the refusal of the White House to offer anything significant to the Syrian opposition, with the US even refusing to lift the ban on supplying them with weapons. Washington was keen to influence the Syrian opposition and to impose political conditions upon its leaders but without providing, in exchange, support. Ultimately, it would seem the US still characteristically seeks "clients" rather than dealing with Arab allies as equals.

 An American Diplomacy Pause since the Geneva Agreement

The Workgroup on Syria reached the Geneva Agreement on June 30, 2012. The Agreement was composed of six points for the resolution of the Syrian crisis but could not be applied due to the conflicting views on interpreting the future of President Assad during the transitional phase. While Russia insisted that the agreement should not include Assad's resignation as the starting point for the transitional phase, Washington stuck to its position stating that Assad cannot be part of any transitional phase. Since that time, however, the US position no longer discusses the status of Bashar al-Assad. In the State of the Union speech on February 12, 2013, President Obama did not even approach this question, limiting himself to stating that he will "maintain pressures on the Syrian regimes and will support the leaders of the opposition."[5]

There is no reason to believe that the Russian and US sides discovered this misunderstanding on their stance on Syria after agreeing to Geneva's plan-both countries knew that they were signing broad articles with no agreements on their interpretation.

The White House's rejection of the recommendations of the State Department and the Pentagon, as well as the CIA, to arm and train the fighters of the Syrian opposition was another proof of Obama's refusal to increase the capacities of the Syrian opposition so as to end the conflict through a military victory for the opposition.[6]

A number of factors contributed to the retreat in the American position and increased US reticence to support the Syrian revolution; these factors also indicate the kind of policy that will be adopted by the Obama administration in its second term:

-      Washington's concerns regarding the political and ideological leanings of some factions of the armed groups that are confronting the Syrian regime. The US is not keen to support these armed groups that could eventually result in them winning. Undoubtedly, Americans are scarred from their experience in Afghanistan, when they armed Mujahideen in order to expel the Soviet occupation forces, who then turned against the US. These fears increased after the killing of the American Ambassador in Benghazi and the domination of northern Mali by Jihadist groups. As a result, the United States decided to include the al-Nusra Front in the list of terrorist organizations on December 5, 2012.

-      America looks with suspicion at the current scenario of the Syrian revolution and its armed component. US diplomacy is also concerned with the potential repercussions of a military victory for the opposition, which could lead to chaos, the sprouting of extremist groups, and the absence of a strong central authority. Such outcomes would threaten regional security, and especially Israel's.

-      Due to the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition and the absence of an alternative to the current regime whose political and ideological leanings are amenable to the Americans and due to the US experience in Iraq and the catastrophic results of state collapse in that country, America is coming closer to the Russian position, which seeks to strike a political solution that would preserve the current structure and institutions of the regime (particularly the security and the army). The new American Secretary of State John Kerry clearly explained this new trend in a testimony to the US Congress on January 24, 2013. Kerry said that "coordination with Russia in the Syrian crisis is the lesser of evils."[7] The former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was even more direct when she said, upon meeting South Africa's Foreign Minister in Pretoria on August 7, 2012, that "those attempting to exploit the suffering of the Syrian people, either by sending in their followers, or by sending terrorist fighters, must know that no party, especially the Syrian people, will allow them to do that". Clinton added, "we must guarantee the preservation of the state institutions."[8] This explains why the US was quick to welcome the initiative of Muaath al-Khateeb, head of the Syrian "National Coalition for the Forces of the Revolution and the Opposition" on February 5, 2013, which essentially agreed to negotiations with regime representatives. This is similar to the US support for the missions of international envoys to Syria where American diplomacy attempts to give the impression of ongoing work and initiatives, even if they were completely devoid of effectiveness or results.

The above factors are behind the American position toward the Syrian revolution; these are also the same factors that limit the EU in making decisions on Syria. The US administration opposed military intervention in Libya, but the French-British intervention led it to the adoption of a supportive position through NATO. When it comes to Syria, the international stand will eventually be shaped by the evolution of the situation on the ground, mainly the increasing human catastrophe and the large number of victims -a result of the regime enjoying an unprecedented level of freedom in their use of weapons and violence against its people. The second development consists in the advance of the rebels on the ground, despite the regime's violence and the armament ban, which forces them to rely exclusively on the funding of some regional parties.

Recently, the National Coalition decided to boycott the meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group in Rome, which was scheduled for February 28, under the pretext that these meetings have become ritualistic formalities that portray the "Friends of Syria" appearing to be exerting effort, but in reality without committing to action. This led to an American campaign urging the Coalition to attend the meeting, including a phone call by the new American Secretary of State with the head of the Coalition, promising him that he carries new policy initiatives approved by Obama to the meeting. Time will show whether this promise was true or not, but it is clear that the United States is now conscious of its awkward position on Syria.



[1] "U.S. imposes sanctions on Syria's Assad", Reuters, May 18, 2011


[2] "Barack Obama: Syrian president 'has lost legitimacy'", The Telegraph, July 13, 2011


[3]  "U.S. calls on Syria's Assad to resign", Reuters, August 18, 2011


[4] "Turkish Minister and Other Envoys Press Syrian Leader", New York Times, August 9, 2011


[5] "State of the Union 2013: President Obama's address to Congress" (Transcript), The White House,

February 12, 2013


[6] "Backstage Glimpses of Clinton as Dogged Diplomat, Win or Lose," Michael R. Gordon and Mark Landler, New York Times, February 2, 2013


[7] "Kerry on Russia: 'I have hope'", United Press International UPI, January 24, 2013 http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2013/01/24/Kerry-on-Russia-I-have-hope/UPI-18981359054666/

[8] "Clinton warns of ‘proxies, terrorists' coming to Syria", Reuters, August 8, 2013




* This article was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version can be found here.