Middle East capitals have begun adjusting their own actions to what they perceive as US President Barack Obama’s full-circle pivot away from engagement in their region and toward a clear-cut Pacific orientation at the outset of his second term. This Obama approach is strongly imprinted on six hot-button areas, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources:
1. North Korea’s nuclear armament and the undoubted tie-in with Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Thursday, Jan. 24, Pyongyang announced a third nuclear test would be conducted as well as more long-range rocket launches, exhibiting the same sort of nuclear defiance to Washington as Iran.
2. The give-and-take at the secret nuclear dialogue between Washington and Tehran, which is believed nevertheless to have gone into deep freeze;
3. Israel’s general election and its outcome. (See separate item in this issue);
4. President Bashar Assad’s unbridled preparations for a full-blown assault on the full gamut of Syrian rebel factions;
5. Russia’s growing military involvement in regional affairs;
6. America’s involvement – or rather non-involvement – in the current war on Al Qaeda.
French bid for direct US aid in Mali is rejected
Obama has never made a secret of his preferred orientation:
“The United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation,” he told the Australian parliament just over a year ago. “As President, I have, therefore, made a deliberate and strategic decision — as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region.”
In case anyone didn’t get the point, he repeated: “The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.”
On Jan. 19, ahead of his second inauguration, The Spectator wrote:
Rather than retreat from foreign commitments, Obama is simply re-orientating them to face up to the rise of the Far East. This so-called ‘Asian pivot’ is the most important strategic shift since the Cold War. It is perhaps no surprise that it took a president with a Kenyan father, born in Hawaii and brought up in Indonesia from the age of six until he was ten, to redirect America’s attention.
That day, the scuttlebutt going around the Persian Gulf, said to originate at the French Camp de la Paix naval base in Abu Dhabi, sketched an alleged conversation French President Francoise Hollande had last week with President Obama.
Hollande asked for America to aid the French military intervention against al Qaeda in Mali with troops, combat planes, helicopters, desert warfare gear and intelligence – in short any way possible.
Hollande is refused direct US assistance in Mali
Obama’s answer is described as a terse: It’s your war, not ours. Mali is not an important strategic asset for America and an Al Qaeda presence there does not directly threaten US cities.
The French president was somewhat taken aback by this answer – especially in view of the threats of terrorist violence building up that week.
Jihadist websites were calling on the faithful to stage solo operations against French nuclear plants, such as the reactor at Nogent-sur-Seine, and providing them with detailed plans of operation.
And in Algiers, military sources briefing Western journalists, some of them from US media, disclosed that Al Qaeda of North Africa (AQIM) which carried out a multinational hostage siege at the In Amenas gas field, had crossed into Algeria from Libya and their weapons had come from supplies extended by Qatar to the Libyan National Transitional Council with Washington’s blessing.
After being turned down by Obama, Hollande travelled to Dubai, arriving on Jan. 16 with a request for United Arab Emirate assistance – either financial or aerial – for his military intervention against the inroads al Qaeda terrorist forces were making in the Saharan republic of Mali.
There too, the French president came away empty-handed except for warm UAE official words of support for his Mali intervention. “The Emirates must decide for themselves what to do to support it,” he said resignedly.
Hillary Clinton’s verbal maneuvers
Middle East leaders followed with fascination the broad-ranging testimony outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday, Jan. 23.
Taken severely to task for her department’s inaction when US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his staff were in mortal danger of an al Qaeda attack September 11, 2012, she said:
“The Benghazi attack did not happen in a vacuum.” The Arab Spring “scrambled power dynamics across the region.” The security situation in North Africa and the Middle East has become more threatening since longtime leaders were ousted in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and “has ushered in a time when al Qaeda is on the rise” after losing its central command.
The weapons “liberated” from Libya after US and NATO toppled Muammar Qaddafi, which have reached Algeria, Mali and Syria, she called a “Pandora's Box if you will" representing a major security threat.
Middle East leaders have always resented the US role in opening the door to this “major security threat,” but even more being left stuck with it. They heard Hillary Clinton finally owning up to the US role. But then they heard her concluding that the US must strike – not al Qaeda – but a careful balance between “engagement and security.”
This was seen in the region as a recommendation that Washington maintain endless talking shops as a cop-out from taking the bull by the horns and correcting the damage.
Thursday, the context of Clinton’s testimony to the House committee was dramatically confirmed by an advisory from the British Foreign Office to its nationals to leave Benghazi at once in response to “specific, imminent threats to Westerners.”
Our counterterrorism sources report that many of the British workers in Libyan oil fields live in Benghazi. London has good reason to fear that, after taking and murdering scores of Western hostages in an Algerian gas field last week, Al Qaeda in North Africa is continuing its terror offensive against Westerners and energy targets in Africa. The murder of four US diplomats last September still haunts Benghazi.
Washington stands aside as Syrian crisis nears boiling-point
Syria is at the same time growing into the most striking illustration of a region in dire security straits and abandoned by America, even as Tehran and Moscow help Bashar Assad prepare his military for an all-out assault on the Syrian rebellion.
Both have stepped up their daily shipments of arms for Assad’s army by air and by sea.
Tuesday, January 22, Moscow began evacuating its citizens from Syria, symptom of another boiling-point coming up in the Syrian crisis.
Wednesday, January 23, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lashed out at the Syrian opposition, blaming its “obsession” with toppling President Bashar Assad” for defeating peace efforts. “For now everything is running up against the opposition’s obsession with toppling Bashar Assad’s regime,” Lavrov told reporters.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Gulf and Middle East sources report that regional capitals, including Jerusalem, are taking careful note of the way Washington is evading any effort to avert the Russian-Iranian-backed Assad onslaught on Syrian rebels. Washington has not even issued a verbal warning for Damascus to hold its hand, which would have been routine procedure for any US administration not so long ago.
As one administration official put it this week: So long as the US homeland is not at risk, America will continue to pull in its military horns.