To say that the recent zigzags in President Obama’s Syria policy have caught friendly Arab leaders by surprise would be an understatement. The president’s 11th hour decision to go to Congress just when leaders across the Mideast were turning on their television sets to watch the United States military strikes in Syria has created heightened confusion and nervousness. This week’s Kerry-Lavrov “two-step” has further confused issues, creating the impression that Obama is weak and lacks resolve, while President Vladimir Putin seems clear about his objectives and determined to support the Assad regime.
Yet, despite the confusion, Arab capitals continue to wait for Washington. With Obama’s decision to include the United Nations in negotiations, the Gulf Cooperation Council states now have no choice but to wait for diplomacy to unfold, despite their public support of U.S. military action. Egypt, which has favored diplomacy, can now potentially play a useful role in encouraging negotiations. Neighboring states, particularly Lebanon and Jordan, are breathing a sigh of relief.
The more hawkish states, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are impatient and will only wait so long for diplomacy to work. While they fully expect Assad and his backers within the Security Council to delay and obfuscate, they are demanding a strong resolution that will force Assad to give up his chemical weapons and open the door to collective international action. Failing that, they expect that the U.S. will ultimately launch military strikes. Obama’s diplomatic timeout could be just that: a timeout. Key Arab states are looking for results. If nothing happens, they are likely to take matters into their own hands and redouble their efforts to support the rebels by all means necessary.
Salman Shaikh’s op-ed is part of a “Room for Debate” series titled “Can Syria’s Chemical Arsenal Be Destroyed?” Access all op-eds in the series here.