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Syria: Why did the West blink?
August 30, 2013, 8:37 am

Obama blinked.

When he said on Wednesday he “had not made a decision” and talked about a “limited response” to the crisis in Syria, the US President did not behave in the way American leaders have since the first war against Iraq in 1991. (Neither Clinton nor the senior and junior Bush ever talked about “limitations” in such circumstances.)

Obama’s junior partners in the UK and France quickly copied their leader, imitating him in his ‘doubts’ in the same way they had been imitating him in his ‘resolve’ just a day earlier.

British Prime Minister David Cameron also suddenly altered his tone while repeating for the umpteenth time the same untruth about Britain ‘not taking sides in the Syrian conflict’ (in reality, the choice of sides, or, rather, of one side was made by the UK, the US and other Western countries back in 2011, or even earlier).

What is worse, Cameron encountered quite a hefty opposition to his intervention plans from 285 MPs in the British Parliament – an exceptional situation for the body that had not even been consulted either about the strike against Yugoslavia in 1999 or about the occupation of Iraq in 2003.

French president Francois Hollande, who had said France was ready “to punish those who gas innocent people” just a day ago, quite as suddenly found himself going for a meeting with the leader of the Syrian opposition instead of giving attack orders to the French aircraft carriers- a rather ‘non-French’, somewhat ‘vegetarian’ approach?

There certainly would be time to talk to the Syrian opposition leaders AFTER “punishing” Damascus! (After all, leaders of the Syrian opposition “councils” and “coalitions” were changed like gloves by the US and the EU in the course of the last two years, so waiting for Hollande’s visit for a day or two ought not to be a problem for them.)

[Getty Images]

“Obama’s junior partners in the UK and France quickly copied their leader” [Getty Images]

The members of the European Union (EU) also revealed varying degrees of cold feet – again, a very rare occurrence for a body that had ‘rubber-stamped’ so many interventions before.

At a meeting of the EU’s foreign ministers in Vilnius, only Denmark expressed a strong desire to go for the war (with due apologies to ‘war enthusiasts’, only a “limited strike”).

Italy, Poland and the Netherlands suddenly felt a strong need for a UN mandate for this kind of military action (strange, they never had such misgivings about attacking Yugoslavia and occupying Iraq).

At an ambassadorial meeting of the NATO, the theme of Syria was not even discussed: NATO at this stage declared that it would rather distance itself from the situation in Syria. A strange attitude from the organisation that promised action “on all azimuths.” It looks like the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation decided to imitate the proverbial wise man from Asia who quietly sits by the river, waiting for the corpse of his enemy to float by in the river’s pure waters.

That enemy could be Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, but, theoretically, it could also be someone else, since all NATO leaders repeat the mantra about them not being “after regime change” in Damascus.

The miscalculations of ‘war strategists’

There are moments like these when hypocrisy starts working against its own authors. Of course Western countries have been after regime change in Damascus since the start of hostilities in 2011 – what else would they be spilling so much blood, ink and cash flows for? These countries are still after regime change in Damascus now. But the miscalculations of Western strategists are for everyone to see: Assad’s regime proved to be more resilient than they expected (they expected it to collapse back in 2011).

This resilience is partially explained by the cruelty and extremism of the Syrian Islamist opposition – something that the Western media and experts also underreported. Executions and sharia law alienated the Syrian people from the opposition – the change that became another closely guarded secret of the Western press.

(The famous columnist of The New York Times, Thomas Friedman, said Assad would win an honest election in Syria – but Friedman said that at a meeting with Russian journalists, not in his column.)

The situation with Assad staying in power is an embarrassment for the US establishment – and this was one of the reasons for the current escalation. The temptation to correct experts’ mistakes by bombings (i.e. to bomb Assad into giving up power, thus making the expert predictions true, albeit with delay) – this temptation is very strong.

And time is pressing: hushing up the misdemeanours of the Syrian opposition is getting difficult for the Western media and expert community. (Cases of opposition fighters using torture against the Syrian government loyalists and even against Western journalists were recently reported even by the New York Times). So, from a PR point of view (usually the most important one for Obama) it is a good time for “action.”


“Mr Assad’s regime proved to be more resilient than they [the West] expected” [AP]

But why did Obama and his European allies blink? Well, it is not too hard to model Obama’s thinking: if my experts miscalculated once, making a wrong assessment of Assad’s military strength and popularity, why shouldn’t they make another error?

Obama knows the true worth of his “advisers” from certain think-tanks, which were trained back in Reagan’s time to give the most optimistic, authority-pleasing forecasts – on Iraq and Libya, on Ukraine and Georgia.

Unfortunately, the last 10 years saw these forecasts dashed – and not only in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia, which the US advisers tried to make both affluent and anti-Russian, the pro-US forces suffered humiliating electoral defeats, which the American intelligence again failed to predict.

But instead of making the “experts” responsible for their actions (by making them pay, say, with their careers) the US establishment is “correcting” their mistakes by military action.

Obama’s worst fear: what if good luck evades the American president one more time? Hence, Obama’s hesitation.  Obama again revealed one of his main character traits – the lack of resolve, indecisiveness.

But this might be a rare case, when irresoluteness can spare the world one more disaster. Obama is torn by two conflicting impulses – the desire to appear “tough” before the general public in the United States and the Congress and the fear of unintended consequences of this “limited” war.

Retired marine General Anthony Zinni reminded the president of a sad truth on the pages of the Washington Post: “You can’t have a limited pregnancy.” If you go for a war, be ready to go all the way to the end.

This may lead to a dangerous repeat of the beginning of World War I – all the heads of state, which unleashed hostilities at the time, wanted a “limited” war. Each of them hoped for his individual country’s impunity.

Each of them just wanted to send a “message” that would bring the desired geopolitical spoils to his feet. The big return message from reality was gruesome: 17 million dead and three empires shattered. Obama should learn from this message before sending Assad his due.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.