The foreign policy efforts of President Barack Obama will continue to be tested by crises in Syria, Egypt, and Iran in 2014. While attempting to focus efforts on domestic concerns such as the troubled implementation of ObamaCare and the still sluggish economic recovery, Obama also faces significant challenges overseas. The recent year has already seen setbacks in at least two of the three situations. While claims of progress have been made in the third, success is far from certain.
In 2013, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is believed to have crossed Obama’s so-called “red line” in terms of using chemical weapons in that country’s ongoing civil war. Obama briefly attempted to rally an international military response, but was deterred by Russian President Vladimir Putin who parlayed an agreement allowing Syria to dispose of its chemical weapons rather than face a military intervention. This was seen as somewhat of an embarrassment to Obama. In addition there was significant opposition in Congress to committing the United States to yet another foreign military intervention.
Also complicating diplomatic efforts in this conflict is the complex nature of the resistance against the Assad regime. There are no “men in white hats” in the Syrian Civil War. Rebel fighters have been just as brutal with Assad loyalists as the Syrian army has been with the rebels. Furthermore, some components of the Syrian resistance are believed to be connected to international terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda. This makes it difficult for the U.S. and other actors to give more direct support to the rebels.
Thus far a solution to the Syrian crisis has been elusive. President Assad remains determined to stay in power, likely fearful of the consequences for his Shi’ite Alawite sect should a Sunni majority government come to power. The international community is divided in its response. Western powers such as the U.S. and the European Union cannot fully commit themselves to the rebels due to their possible terrorist ties and the concerns of Syria then becoming a new terrorist “safe haven.” Russia and China both have supported the Assad regime thus far, making a diplomatic resolution unlikely. But Syria, along with Egypt and Iran, are all crises that will continue to test the Obama foreign policy.
Somewhat connected to the Syrian Civil War are the ongoing negotiations with Iran. The U.S. engagement of the Iranian regime is a new development in U.S. foreign policy. Iran is a staunch ally of the Assad regime in Syria. Iran is a Shi’ite Muslim state and the Alawites represented by Assad are as well. Syria also serves as a vital “bridge” between Iran and the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah which operates in Lebanon. Should the friendly Assad regime be removed in Syria, this would potentially block a vital supply line by which Iran provides weapons and materials to Hezbollah.
But the primary concern with Iran remains its nuclear program. There is concern throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world, in terms of Iran’s intentions. While publicly claiming they only want civilian power generation, the development of nuclear weapons remains only a step away. An interim agreement is scheduled to go into effect on January 20th which will allow for the return of inspectors to Iran to monitor their program.
As is often the case in diplomacy, both “sides” have claimed victory in this agreement with the Obama administration stating that it will lead to a permanent agreement that will prevent a nuclear armed Iran, and the Iranian regime claiming the rest of the world has “surrendered” to the right of the Iranian state to have a nuclear program. Time will tell if this active engagement will pay the dividends Obama believes it will or if Iran will remain a challenge to U.S. foreign policy.
In Egypt the Obama Administration initially gave its support to the supposedly democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Eager to embrace change after the removal of the autocratic former president Hosni Mubarak, Obama backed the result of the revolution even though there were concerns about the intentions of the new government. When the new president, Mohammed Morsi, claimed the power to bypass the courts and unilaterally implement decrees, this led to a new revolt in Egypt. The Egyptian military, historically the “king makers” in Egypt, backed this new revolution and removed the Brotherhood backed government.
Obama was put in a difficult position by this. On the surface, this could be seen as a military coup against a civilian government, even if the Brotherhood was distasteful. So in response, the Obama administration reduced U.S. foreign aid to Egypt and made statements calling the turmoil “troubling.” This in turn upset the Egyptian people who saw this as something of a betrayal by the U.S. and Obama.
Recently the new interim Egyptian government labeled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and continued the process of creating a new constitution. A vote was taken just today on a draft of this new document, and it passed by overwhelming numbers. But despite its popularity, it still contains many concessions to the aforementioned military. So it remains to be seen whether this new Egyptian government will be democratic either.
Any one of these situations would present a challenge for any U.S. president. But taken collectively, they all represent problems for Obama in the coming year. It is unlikely Obama will be able to focus as heavily on his domestic agenda as he would like with each of these crises unfolding, and none of them offer simple solutions. It is clear that the Obama foreign policy will continue to be tested by Syria, Iran and Egypt throughout the coming year.
By Christopher V. Spencer