U.S. caution on Syria raises regional questions

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 03, 2013 2:02 PM
U.S. caution on Syria raises regional questions

(Reuters) - The United States' caution over launching any strike against the Syrian government over alleged use of chemical weapons has raised questions around the globe about the implications of a less interventionist U.S. foreign policy.

President Barack Obama pulled back from ordering a quick strike against President Bashar al-Assad's forces last weekend and decided to take his proposals to a Congressional vote.

Analysts differed over precisely what this caution said about U.S. policy or the complex nature of the Syrian civil war. In the Middle East, some saw a broader malaise in U.S. policy towards the region.

In Australia and Japan, others divined symptoms of a refocusing of U.S. interest on the Pacific region. In China there was some skepticism about suggestions of any real change in U.S. policy and a sense that eventual U.S. involvement in Syria could deflect Washington's attention from diplomatic and military rivalries in the Pacific.

Here is a selection of comment on U.S. handling of the alleged Syrian chemical attacks and its implications for regions:


Sun Zhe, a China-U.S. expert at Beijing's elite Tsinghua University:

"If the U.S. is determined to take action, I think it could actually relieve some of the tension in the Asia Pacific. Chinese people would love to see that, because if the U.S. is caught up in trouble in Syria, there is less pressure here. From that standpoint, maybe the Chinese government should encourage the U.S. to get involved in Syria."

Sun said he did not think a less interventionist United States would change China's thinking or make it more aggressive when it came to maritime disputes with Southeast Asia and Japan.

Wang Dong, an international relations professor at the elite Peking University:

"It's too early to say that the U.S. has already become less interventionist.

"If we look at historical patterns, when there are U.S. interests involved, whether or not there is strong domestic support or support from allies ... the U.S. will still intervene. Policymakers, including Chinese policymakers, have to be very careful and avoid drawing conclusions."

Osaka University professor Kazuya Sakamoto:

"I don't think the United States is making a shift toward isolationism ... If that happened, it would be a serious problem for the world.

"The United States is shifting its focus from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific. That's their core (foreign) policy."

Narushige Michishita, associate professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Japan:

"If the United States ends up finding itself being forced to pour resources into the Middle East, there would be a higher risk of the U.S. telling countries in Asia they should take care of regional matters by themselves as much as they can. In general, Asian countries will be happier if the United States is not deeply involved in the Middle East.

"It is true, however, that there is a risk that the U.S. not doing anything despite the problem in Syria would give China an impression that the United States really cannot take action, resulting in bolder behaviors by China."

Michael Fullilove, executive director of Australia's Lowy Institute for International Policy and a specialist on U.S. foreign policy:

"It makes compelling strategic sense for the United States to rebalance its foreign policy toward Asia, where so many of its future opportunities and challenges lie."


Nigel Inkster, former deputy head of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and now head of political risk and transnational threats at the International Institute for Strategic Studies:

"It's significant. We've got very used to this idea of Western interventionism and even though we knew there was a lot of war weariness it's still something of a surprise for people to see the wheels come off it like this. It's not the end, but it is going to be more difficult going forward. I don't think the big players - the Russias and Chinas - are going to look at this and think that it's all over for the West and its military escapades, but it's clearly going to be noticed.

"In the Gulf, I think it's being seen as another sign that the U.S. in particular cannot be relied upon in the way some of the states have assumed it could be ... In Israel, there's been a certain amount of commentary saying that if U.S. red lines are meaningless that means it's down to Israel to deal with Iran ... The Syrians will almost certainly overly interpret this and may feel more confident than they should."


Yezid Sayigh, former Palestinian negotiator now senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.

"You could argue that what we're seeing is part of a wider picture in which the U.S. has struggled to engage with the region and find its way forward ever since 2011, and most recently when faced with the military coup d'etat in Egypt."


William McCants, Director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings:

"I think there's going to be some concern that the United States is not going to be a dependable ally, that if its executive branch may want to take an action there will always be some question now if the executive branch can act on what it wants to do, that it might be hamstrung.

"Trying to drive a wedge between the allies by using the same kind of attacks in the future may become more attractive because Assad has seen the closest of the countries allied against him split over this issue. And he may use it again as a wedge to split a coalition."

Charles Kupchan, Council on Foreign Relations Fellow and Georgetown Professor of International Affairs:

"I don't think that it is a precedent-setting move. I think that Obama was spooked by the vote in the British parliament, saw that there was wobbly support at home, didn't find the Arab League as strongly behind the use of force as he wanted, and he therefore said that for reasons of political cover and political legitimacy 'I'm going to go to Congress'."


Emmanuel Kwesi Anning, head of research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra, Ghana:

"In many ways, the prevarication highlights the inconsistencies in international and Western intervention. You can say that Syria is too hard, that it's a difficult strategic neighborhood. But human rights are human rights.

"At the same time we are seeing more in the way of intervention in Africa - Mali, Ivory Coast, Somalia ... Look at Togo. If the military had overthrown the elected government then our Western partners would have called it a coup d'état and would have refused to have any dealings with the new government. But in Egypt, they seem to just accept it."

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)