Global Politics

Obama's Abrupt Change in Syria Comes as a Shock to Experts, Allies, and Even Enemies

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Syria's president Bashar al-Assad gestures during an interview with French daily Le Figaro in Damascus in this handout distributed by Syria's national news agency SANA on September 2, 2013. REUTERS/SANA/Handout (SYRIA - Tags: CONFLICT CIVIL UNREST POLITICS ) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - RTX13512

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Put yourself in the shoes of the Syrian President.

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Bashar Al-Assad might have gone to bed last Friday night thinking the game was up. After two and a half years of standing on the sidelines, the Obama administration was making a strong–and very public–case for military intervention in Syria.

And then, suddenly, President Obama flipped to Congress, which isn't in session for another week.

Assad might have breathed a huge sigh of relief. In effect, America was backing down.

Obama's abrupt change of direction came as a shock to experts and allies alike.

But the president had good reason for the abrupt change of course, says Tamara Cofman Wittes. She was deputy assistant secretary for Near East affairs from late 2009 to early 2012.

"The decision to go to Congress is a very prudent one, given the – to say the least – ambivalent views of many Americans about the prospects of American military action in Syria," Cofman Wittes said in interview with the BBC's Today program.

Cofman Wittes, who directs the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said Assad will now have more time to prepare for a possible US attack. And if Congress follows the lead of UK lawmakers and says 'no' to military intervention, the Syrian president might be given another boost.

But if Congress does authorize American military action in Syria, Cofman Wittes said, "Assad will have no grounds for comfort at all."

"In fact, Obama will have the backing for perhaps a much more significant military response than he might have undertaken, were he going it alone."

Whatever happens in Congress though, the president's sudden decision to seek its approval does not go over well with American allies in the Middle East.

"It goes over in the Middle East as a confirmation of what many people think of President Obama, which is that he's not interested in the region, he's trying to get out of the region and that he's not a reliable ally," said Gregory Gause, a political scientist at the University of Vermont and an expert on Saudi Arabia.

Gause said the Saudis, who support the Syrian rebels, see the dynamics of US intervention in black and white terms.

"They don't care about our own war weariness," he said in a phone interview with PRI's The World, "they just want [the United States intervening] in [Syria] and getting rid of Bashar Al-Assad."

For Saudi Arabia, US military intervention in Syria could be a powerful blow to the Saudis' main rival, Iran.

The Israelis see things much the same way.

Israel is counting on President Obama to live up to his promise to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. A failure to act in Syria after government forces have used chemical weapons, so the Israeli thinking goes, would send a dangerous signal to Iran.

"There's a sense that by publicly changing his mind, which essentially what Obama did, the president signaled hesitation and wariness and even weakness," said David Horovitz, editor of the English language Times of Israel, during a phone interview. Horovitz wrote an op-ed today that opens with the following:

The Israeli political and security leadership is privately horrified by President Barack Obama's 11th-hour turnaround on striking Syria–a decision he took alone, after he had sent his Secretary of State John Kerry to speak out passionately and urgently in favor of military action. It is now fearful that, in the end, domestic politics or global diplomacy will ultimately lead the US to hold its fire altogether.

It is worried, furthermore, at the ever-deeper perception of Obama's America in the Middle East as weak, hesitant and confused–most especially in the view of the region's most radical forces, notably including Bashar Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran.

And it is profoundly concerned that the president has set a precedent, in seeking an authorization from Congress that he had no legal requirement to seek–and that Congress was not loudly demanding–that may complicate, delay or even rule out credible action to thwart a challenge that dwarfs Assad's chemical weapons capability: Iran's drive to nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, France is pushing for military action in Syria. French lawmakers are looking at an intelligence report that blames Assad's forces for the chemical weapons attack of August 21. There will be a debate on the issue in the French parliament on Wednesday.

In advance of that, President Assad spoke with the French newspaper, Le Figaro. And he delivered a pointed warning. Any French military action against Syria, he said, would lead to "negative repercussions."