America’s inertia has an explanation. The Middle East is really no longer a strategic priority for Washington.
The trial has begun, the finishing touches have been made to the indictment, and the verdict is beyond question. As far as Syria is concerned, Obama is clueless. Those who despise the American president proclaim loud and strong that he is no strong war leader, but a soft and indecisive politician.
“He did not know how to make the crucial decision to attack Assad, when he should have,”* the prosecution rants. Even though the occasion arose in August 2013, when proof was produced that Bashar Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons, at the last moment, Obama refused to let loose a storm of steel in the skies above Damascus to the chagrin of François Hollande, who had to discreetly put his Rafale fighters back in their hangars.
Faced with the Russians, who have invited themselves with impunity into the Syrian bedlam, the United States seems to be paralyzed. This leaves Vladimir Putin to do what he likes in an attempt to protect the Alawite resistance, save Assad, and preserve Moscow’s only political and military base in the Mediterranean. Instead of banging his fists on the table, Secretary of State John Kerry makes interminable telephone calls to Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s chief diplomat, whining about the warmongering.
In the United States the Republican opposition, in mid-election campaign, is up in arms, and even in the Democratic ranks there is a stiff chill in the autumnal air.
Israel and Oil
The psychological explanation for Barack Obama’s supposed lack of character falls a little short, however. If you look closer, the American president demonstrates some consistency, and there are reasons behind his caution. Traumatized by the fiascoes in Iraq and Afghanistan, his first concern is to avoid interfering in an uncontrollable situation at all costs. He also thinks that the Russians have limited resources and that they will end up stuck in the shifting sands of Syria.
Above all, in America’s eyes, the region has lost its strategic importance. Traditionally, America’s Middle East policy was based on two preoccupations: Israel and oil. Even if the burning issue of Palestine remains a perennial problem, as seen in the last few days with serious tensions in Jerusalem, the Palestinian territories and West Bank, the existence of Israel is no longer under threat.
The Arab world is in pieces. Syria and Iraq are fragmented. Hezbollah is too busy fighting in Syria alongside Assad’s Alawites to consider reigniting the fight against Israel. Hamas, suffocated by the Egyptian army, is under control in the Gaza Strip. Even if the occasional escalation is still possible, it does not constitute an existential threat to Israel.
Ruled with an iron fist by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt wouldn’t dream of jeopardizing peace with the Hebrew state, no more than King Abdullah of Jordan would. The Gulf States, headed by Saudi Arabia, are financial giants, but military dwarfs, and are much more afraid of Iran than of Israel.
As for the black gold, the planet is awash with it. In 2014, the U.S. became the world’s principal producer of crude oil thanks to shale oil. For months now, there has been a major surplus in global supply, and it is no doubt going to increase. The fall in prices will push oil producing countries to pump more oil in order to avoid excessive currency losses, not to mention the return of Iran to the market.
In this context, Middle Eastern crude oil has in part lost its strategic importance. Rightly or wrongly, Barack Obama has bet on Iran, the giant of the region, with a nuclear agreement that Washington wanted at all costs: a risky choice, but one that could prove profitable in the future. So, in the end, the American president firmly believes that Asia will be more important for the future of the world and the U.S. than the region between the Nile and the Euphrates.