David Ignatius
Opinion writer June 28, 2013

Centuries of theatergoers have puzzled over the riddle of why it took Shakespeare’s Hamlet so long to act once he had set his mind to it. The Arab world has the same question about President Obama’s delay in implementing his policies in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The military situation in Syria is slipping away as the president ponders. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Iran, is creating a “cordon sanitaire” from Damascus to the Alawite heartland in northwest Syria. This campaign escalated this month when Assad’s forces drove Syrian rebels from Qusair, near the Lebanese border. Now, Assad’s forces are pushing Sunni rebels from Tal Kalakh, a little farther north, continuing what increasingly appears to be a policy of ethnic cleansing.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

“A divided Syria is going to be a scourge on its neighbors, region and the whole world, but mostly a catastrophe brought on the Syrian people for decades to come. . . . Simply, a dictator should not be left to do so much destruction,” wrote Gen. Salim Idriss, the rebel commander, in a letter to the U.N. Security Council on Monday.

And what is the United States doing to deliver on Obama’s June 14 pledge to provide increased military aid for the rebels? Let me quote the succinct summary of one of my Syrian rebel contacts: “Nothing . . . not even a single bullet.” Rebels also complain that the United States provided tepid leadership at a Friends of Syria meeting last weekend in Qatar.

If so, this is a mistake. Presidents cannot make promises of military assistance and then watch their allies be crushed. Syria is a policy nightmare, and Obama is right to want an eventual negotiated political transition. But that will not happen if Assad and Iran shatter the rebels in the face of an American promise of assistance.

Obama stated the right mission last Monday with PBS’s Charlie Rose:

“The goals are a stable, nonsectarian, representative Syrian government that is addressing the needs of its people through political processes and peaceful processes. We’re not taking sides in a religious war between Shia and Sunni. Really, what we’re trying to do is take sides against extremists of all sorts and in favor of people who are in favor of moderation, tolerance, representative government and, over the long term, stability and prosperity for the people of Syria.”

Correct policy. So make it happen: Someone in the White House needs to be asking every morning at an interagency meeting: What are we doing today to deliver on the president’s promise to help Idriss and the Syrian moderates prevail?

Without this focus, the president’s Syria strategy will fail. The beneficiaries will be the extremists Obama seeks to block: the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and other Shiite radicals on the one hand, and on the other, the Sunni extremist battalions among the rebels who would ally Syria with jihadists and Muslim Brothers in Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt.

Yet the administration has “the slows,” as President Lincoln memorably said of Gen. George McClellan before firing him. Although it has been obvious for a year that the moderate Syrian opposition lacks a solid command-and-control structure, very little has been done. A recent rebel memo to the State Department summarized the gaps in Idriss’s “Supreme Military Council” operation. Take the crucial area of training: There are no specialized trainers for handling chemical weapons, no training of elite forces, no training for protection of civilians, no leadership training, no communications or data training, and no planning for reconstruction.

Egypt is another puzzling example of bootless Obama administration policy in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohamed Morsi is demonstrably failing. The country is effectively bankrupt, save for misguided charity from Qatar. With just 28 percent of the public supporting Morsi, according to a Zogby Research poll, an opposition coalition called Tamarod claims to have gathered 15 million signatures on a petition withdrawing confidence in the president. This weekend protesters are gathering in Cairo.

What is the Obama administration’s position? You would think, surely, that it would remain neutral in the face of broad-based opposition to Morsi and the Brotherhood. It would urge the Egyptian army — the only institution in Egypt that retains wide support — to stay neutral as well, just as it did when protesters challenged President Hosni Mubarak two years ago.

But administration policy is so unclear that many Egyptians think the United States is backing Morsi in the face of public rejection, and they wonder why.

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