Posted by on June 17, 2014 in Blog

yrian president Bashar al-Assad grafitti in the

It has been one month since the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) visited Washington in hopes of receiving military assistance in their fight against the Bashar al-Assad regime and extremist forces in Syria. Since then, if U.S. policy on Lebanon and Syria are viewed together, there were three important “windows of opportunity” in which the United States could have further engaged on Syria while addressing the internal divisions and instability in neighboring Lebanon amplified by the Syrian crisis.

The first “window” occurred directly following the SOC visit to DC and before the constitutionally-mandated deadline to elect a president in Lebanon on May 25. The second was between this deadline and Assad’s presidential election in Syria on June 3. We are currently in the third window, following Syria’s election.

Throughout these periods, there have been two important U.S. foreign policy actions regarding Lebanon and Syria. The first was Obama’s announcement of a Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund attributed to the Syrian conflict at his West Point address on May 28. The second was Secretary of State John Kerry’s four-hour visit to Lebanon – the first by a U.S. Secretary of State in five years – on June 4, where he criticized Syria’s elections and announced new financial assistance for Lebanon in dealing with the refugee crisis.

Both of these actions, which could have been taken any time, occurred late in the game – only days before and after Assad’s elections. The administration made a (likely) conscious decision to wait until after Lebanon failed to elect a president and shortly before and after the Syrian election to announce any new initiative on Syria or reassert influence on Lebanon. As others have noted, by doing nothing, the administration essentially “cast its vote for the Assad regime.”

There are several approaches the administration could have pursued, whether using rhetoric and speeches - Obama’s strong suits - to undermine Assad’s elections and tactics as much as possible; vocally and adamantly pressing the United Nations to ensure the Assad regime was complying with U.N. humanitarian resolutions or a more forceful diplomatic push at the U.N. for the International Criminal Court’s war crimes prosecution; or making a firm announcement and commitment to vetting and arming opposition groups and further bolstering the SOC.

These actions taken in the first “window” might have pressured the Assad regime, lent some credibility to the SOC leaders that met with the President and high-level officials, created space for a more open and fair process for the inevitable election, and provided U.S. support throughout Lebanon’s presidential deliberations.

Instead, on Syria, the administration used the month mainly to shift rhetoric and policy from a humanitarian to counterterrorism narrative. This strategy might influence U.S. public opinion on U.S. engagement, but a counterterrorism policy on Syria requires greater cooperation with the Assad regime, arguably more so than a humanitarian approach already does. The Assad regime understands this well; the current events unfolding in Iraq only support Assad’s narrative in this regard.

While Assad's elections may have been “a great big zero” to the United States and many in the international community, they were not insignificant. Assad managed to reassert himself in Syria, reinsert himself in Lebanon and redefine his image as protector against increasing terrorism. The elections became a successful public relations tool for Assad and his backers, especially since they went uncountered by countries like the United States. Iran and Hezbollah have already cast it as not only a presidential win, but a win of the war.

In Lebanon, the United States also held back during the first “window” and adopted a policy of “no international interference” regarding Lebanon’s presidential election. While great in principle, especially given the long history of international coordination and regional consolidation over a consensus president and the need to bolster Lebanese sovereignty, it proved to be an unrealistic effort that in part contributed to Lebanon's failure to elect a president.

Every day without a president in Lebanon makes it more likely that Iran and Saudi Arabia will become more essential to their constituents in Lebanon. Assad’s influence over Lebanon’s electoral politics (insignificant before his election) has already increased – he recently announced his support for candidate Michel Aoun, allowing Hezbollah and the March 8 Alliance to solidify and consolidate their demands.

This leaves Lebanon with what external players like the United States hoped would not happen – a presidential vacuum that does not maintain Lebanon’s domestic stability, but rather threatens it.

Kerry, in his “surprise” visit to Lebanon after Assad’s win, tried to pick up the pieces, but left empty handed and showed that the United States is becoming increasingly irrelevant in Lebanon’s political stability and future. Kerry legitimized Hezbollah’s influence during his visit, failed to pave any significant path forward as Lebanon attempts to shelter itself from regional instability, and now, other countries are more actively engaged in promoting alternative solutions to Lebanon’s stalemate.

Ultimately, being late to the game through these half-hearted efforts forces future U.S. engagement in Syria and Lebanon’s to follow the assumption – whether intentional or not – that the Obama administration will work with the Assad regime.

These recent events show that the U.S. does have leverage and choice in its Middle East policymaking. Active involvement in the Middle East seems to be of little concern to many Americans, who are increasingly seeing U.S. engagement in the region as a false dichotomy between no engagement or serious military action. Still, failure to engage at any level will have profound implications for the Middle East.

So why not spend the month of May adamantly condemning Assad, bolstering the SOC, or visiting and pressuring Lebanon to find a consensus candidate for president, way before the election provided Assad a chance to reassert his influence? It appears the Obama administration remains unwilling or unsure of how to shape outcomes in Lebanon and may ultimately see Assad as the "lesser evil" in Syria.

For the forseeable future, the administration will likely continue to scramble in its policy responses and react precariously to the ever-changing events on the ground.

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