With US President Barack Obama approaching the final weeks of his time in the Oval Office, it is clear he is leaving behind an incomplete vision for democracy and peace in the Middle East, anticipated in his Cairo speech eight years ago.
Syria is perhaps one of the worst troubles left behind by the Obama administration.
In the eyes of prominent political science professor and commentator Gilbert Achcar, Obama did not merely fail to provide answers to the dilemma in Syria before the peaceful calls for democracy metamorphosed into civil war; he is actually responsible for the suffering of the Syrian people that has persisted endlessly for five years.
“The Obama administration and Barack Obama himself are directly responsible for the massacre in Syria,” Achcar said in an interview with Ahram Online.
According to Achcar, while Russia was getting heavily involved in Syria directly and through its regional allies, the Obama administration failed to take the side of the opposition and it did even put a ceiling on the support that regional powers were providing for those acting against Syrian “dictator” Bashar Al-Assad.
“The Obama administration denied the opposition anti-aircraft missiles at a time when Assad and his allies from Russia were heavily bombarding the cities where the call for democracy started,” Achcar said.
This, he argued, created a situation of imbalance in favour of Assad and left millions of Syrians devastated and dispelled from their own homes and their entire country, carrying “a firm belief that the US is to blame for their plight,” he said.
Unlike other commentators, the Lebanese-born and London-based professor of political science sees no war by proxy in Syria, “simply because in Syria there is no balance, and because while Russia is so heavily involved the US is involved to a much lesser degree.”
This lack of balance, which he is not certain will be reversed by a new US administration come January next year, is the driver of ongoing war in Syria.
“There is no end in sight and all the political negotiations are simply unable to secure an answer because the situation on the ground does not compel Assad to go. The opposition cannot come to accept the rule of this dictator—especially considering that in 2013 and 2015, with limited means, they managed to make considerable progress in the face of Assad and regional allies including Hezbollah and other militias,” he said during a telephone interview.
“Short of a decisive change on the ground there cannot be any ending of the war in Syria because the dictator will continue his war with the support of the Russians; he would not settle for any compromise as long as he knows that the opposition is being denied serious defensive weapons,” he insisted.
Achcar is not willing to confuse the war on ISIS with the war in Syria, and said it is impossible that the Obama administration could have been fooled into believing that one is the other. Rather, the Obama administration—and possibly Israel—feared the collapse of Syria in the absence of a credible replacement that could have won approval by all concerned regional and international partners.
Syria, Achcar insisted, will be one of the greatest and most important challenges for the next US presidency. He believes that despite setbacks, the Arab Spring that began in Tunis in the very late days of 2010 is bound to reemerge, because it reflects the true will of people who have had enough with economic injustice and poor governance.
Author of two volumes on the Arab Spring printed in 2013 and the spring of this year under the titles of The People Want: a Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising and Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising, Achcar sees Syria through the lens that the old is dead and the new is yet to be born.
This is precisely the point he argues in his two volumes: the old regimes which prompted so much contempt—demonstrated in the squares by the masses—cannot be resurrected no matter the political ploys of their remnants. But the “progressive alternative” is not there yet, “and meanwhile we see the continued struggle within the old, between military and Islamist, and not between the old and the new as some might think.”
Achcar has no doubt in his mind that contrary to the narrative given by Assad and other leaders in countries currently suffering the setback of the Arab Spring, the US was not the one to instigate the massive show of rebellion.
“Those who promote this argument seem determined to overlook the very shocking unfair distribution of wealth in Arab countries,” Achcar said.
He insisted that in Syria with Assad, in Egypt with Hosni Mubarak and even in Libya with Muammar Qaddafi “who had been collaborating with the West since 2003,” the US was taken by surprise and was not sure how to react.
“Actually, the only country that could not have been qualified as a US ally was Syria – although of course the US never treated Syria as an enemy; like Israel, the US was content with a Syrian regime that kept the borders with Israel peaceful and handled the Palestinian resistance in Lebanon,” he said. “Despite the friction with the Bush administration, around Syrian opposition to the occupation of Iraq as well as Syrian alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, the Obama administration had improved its relations with Damascus,” he added.
According to Achcar, the US actually tried to “co-opt the revolution in Syria” in its early days through “the association of the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar” but it failed, “just as it failed to present the other Arab Spring countries with regimes that could both appease the demands of the masses and still do business with the US.”
Today, Achcar argues that in every Arab Spring country the US remains engaged with regimes that have not bowed to the demands of the masses, beyond “empty slogans and false promises” to meet the “actual demands of redistribution of wealth and developmental policies, and of course democracy.”
According to Achcar, while some try to address their socio-economic woes by pursuing IMF-prescribed reform measures, “this too is part of the old and it does not provide a sustainable shield against a socio-economic explosion.”
However, he argues, the basic political dilemma remains unresolved: the military versus the Islamist, “and now we are actually talking about Sunni Islamist versus Shia Islamist with both Saudi Arabia and Iran at loggerheads.”
According to Achcar, this is why the situation is still unsettled “and will remain as such as long as no new breakthrough manages to finally finish the old and introduce the new; we will see a lot more upheaval and it could take several more years or a few decades but the old has to go completely and the new has yet to be born.”
This elimination of the old and the birth of the new are indispensable but not inevitable, argued Achcar. Short of this indispensable radical change, the region will keep suffering from instability and violence.