Obama @ Westpoint: Syria and more

Obama @ Westpoint: Syria and more

The traditional Commencement Speeches by U.S. presidents at the West Point Military Academy usually chart the course of their foreign policy agenda for their remaining term. President Barack Obama, in his speech on Wednesday, outlined the U.S.’s priorities for the remainder of his presidency and possibly further.

As Obama stressed the need for U.S. leadership, he also clarified the position of “not going alone.” “Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans,” he said, while addressing the issue of intervention. Obama detailed his argument with this sentence:

“When issues of global concern that do not pose a direct threat to the United States are at stake – when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction – then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.” He then elaborated how sanctions and international pressure on Iran and Russia had actually yielded results.

Despite all its pitfalls, one has to give credit to Obama’s foreign policy doctrine. On Syria though, there is still a lot to be done. Obama, without naming Bashar al-Assad, said his government would support the people fighting against a dictatorship, while also adding that “in helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we also push back against the growing number of extremists who find safe-haven in the chaos.” 

In a conference call following the speech, a senior administration official stressed the importance of Syria as a priority this summer. It has almost been a year since the U.S. and Syria came close to a real war and al-Assad’s regime yielded to the demands of dismantling chemical weapons. Iran was the key in that deal. Now a year after the crisis, Iran seems to be the biggest beneficiary of the changing dynamics in the region.

So what should we understand when they say “moderate opposition” in Syria? The only unified opposition group in Syria is still the Kurds. Obviously, the U.S. sees the Kurdish example in northern Iraq as a partial success story and Rojawa is no exception. But for the Kurds of Syria, Barzani and his dealings with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are not something to be proud of. Sources close to Syrian Kurds say they are launching a diplomatic offensive for better recognition in the international arena. Salih Muslim, the chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) recently said in an interview that “if Turkey could let go of its fears of Kurds it could easily become the leader of the region.”

Thus, it is ironic that the Kurdish peace talks and Syrian situation are linked to the upcoming presidential elections in Turkey. Will Kurds compromise with Erdoğan and support him at the polls? Or will they seek a broader coalition with the secular Turks, Alevis and the rest of country? As the anniversary of Gezi Park protests approaches, and as the Soma mine tragedy sinks into amnesia, Obama reminded us of some of the things that have happened recently and without pointing fingers.

“A new century has brought no end to tyranny. In capitals around the globe – including some of America’s partners – there has been a crackdown on civil society. The cancer of corruption has enriched too many governments and their cronies, and enraged citizens from remote villages to iconic squares … In all these cases, we should not expect change to happen overnight. That’s why we form alliances – not only with governments, but with ordinary people. For unlike other nations, America is not afraid of individual empowerment, we are strengthened by it – by civil society and transparency; by striving entrepreneurs and small businesses; by educational exchange and opportunity for women and girls. That’s who we are. That’s what we represent.”

Let this be the beginning of a new kind of relationship.