Important developments are reshaping the contours of West Asia. After around three years of conflict in Syria, the United States, Russia and the United Nations are scrambling to bring the two warring sides to the negotiating table in Geneva before the end of the year. But both the political opposition and its armed forces have outlined preconditions for talks. A number of gains made by the Syrian government in the Damascus suburbs and mounting pressure on rebels in the northern part of the country are complicating Western efforts to persuade the opposition to attend planned peace talks. In a first of its kind, the United Nations (UN) has set up a chemical weapons mission with about 100 technical specialists, administrators and security officers to destroy Syria’s nerve agent programme. Despite taking on this challenge, the UN Secretary General has conceded that the campaign to contain one of the world’s deadliest weapons programs would not end the suffering in the country, where more than 100,000 people have died since 2011, the majority killed by conventional weapons used by the regime led by President Bashar al-Assad.
The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is finalising a plan for the destruction of about 1,300 tons of Syrian chemical weapons and precursors. It is now clear that the western policy in Syria has faced a setback and the Syrian regime is likely to survive with all that it entails for a war-ravaged nation.
That Obama has had no policy on Syria was evident from his flip-flops, as the crisis came to a point of no return. For more than two years, he had insisted that Assad must go, but took few steps to hasten that departure. During this time, millions of people have been displaced from their homes, al-Qaeda has found a safe haven in the country and violence has spread to neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq, with Israel, Jordan and Turkey also at risk. There has been an extraordinary failure of leadership by the US President. While deciding on intervention in a fateful West Asian war, he chose the minimalist option, most likely to fail.
Days after being on the verge of sending US missiles into Syria to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, Obama decided to go to the Congress to authorize this mission in advance.
As it started to become clear that Congress would not give its approval for the attack on Syria, Obama started to have a rethink. Finally, the President was offered a lifeline by the very regime he was planning to attack, when Assad agreed to a Russian plan to surrender chemical weapons.
As a result, Obama then decided to pursue diplomatic efforts to force the Syrian President to turn over control of his chemical weapons to an international body, and eventually to see them destroyed. Failing that, he could then go back to Congress with a stronger case to make that he had exhausted peaceful efforts and that military action was the only course left to deter the Syrians from using those weapons again. It has been a muddle all around for Washington.
As a result of Obama’s Syria policy, America’s position as the region’s predominant power has come under threat with regional players weighing their options and other powers asserting themselves in ways that are unprecedented. Saudi Arabia remains disturbed by the US-Russian diplomatic initiative on Syria’s chemical weapons and has called for increasing support to the Syrian opposition. Riyadh suspects that the Syrian regime would take advantage of the initiative to change the balance of power in the ground in its favour. The possible US-Iran rapprochement has also increased anxiety in the Arab Gulf states. According to a recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran all but halted the installation of new centrifuges at its uranium enrichment plants beginning in August, the same month that moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani was sworn in as president. But few in the Arab world are taking this seriously.
Turkey has signed a $4 billion deal for a FD-2000 missile defence system from China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corp, a company that is under US sanctions for dealings with Iran, North Korea and Syria. Though Ankara has signalled that it might back away from the deal after strong opposition was expressed by Washington and NATO, it underlines a changing reality in West Asia insofar as the emergence of new powers such as Russia and China is concerned.
The regional configuration is changing rapidly in the West Asian region as the US forces have left Iraq and with the fall of some of major US allies in the Arab Spring uprisings. At the same time, Russia has asserted its so far limited regional presence by standing steadfastly with its only remaining Arab ally. The passing of the Security Council resolution requiring Syria to surrender its chemical weapons arsenal was a huge achievement for Russia. Moscow is also trying to reach out to states like Iraq and Egypt to win new friends in the region. The new Egyptian government has reached out to Moscow already and the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been to Russia twice over the last year in order to sign a $4 billion defence pact. The Arab states remain deeply suspicious of Russian motives and view with concern Russian manoeuvrings to entrench itself at the expense of the US.
The US interest in West Asia is declining as domestic economic and political uncertainties make it look more and more inwards. Moreover, the US energy profile is changing rapidly. The shale oil and gas boom is transforming energy markets with the US likely to emerge as the world’s biggest combined oil and gas producer this year. American imports of natural gas and crude oil have fallen 32 per cent and 15 per cent since 2008 and last year the US tapped more natural gas than Russia for the first time in three decades.
These trends are reshaping the regional order in West Asia and New Delhi will have to respond pro-actively to preserve and enhance its own interests in a strategically critical region. So far, India has been able to cultivate its ties with major regional players including apparent adversaries such as Israel, Iran and the Arab states without incurring significant costs. It could do this primarily because of the US predominance in the regional strategic landscape and as that hegemony comes under question, New Delhi will be forced to re-calibrate its regional diplomacy.
The author teaches at King’s College, London
As a result of Obama’s Syria policy, America’s position as the region’s predominant power has come under threat with regional players weighing their options and other powers asserting themselves in ways that are unprecedented