USIP’s Steve Heydemann in Beirut, Lebanon discusses the latest developments in Syria, the regional response to the U.S.’s recently announced sanctions on the Syrian government, and what the region will want to hear in President Barack Obama’s speech.

Update: May 20, 2011

USIP’s Steve Heydemann follows up his earlier post from Beirut, Lebanon with regional reactions to President Barack Obama’s speech on the Middle East and North Africa – and the president’s statement on the 1967 borders of Israel. For more on the president's speech, read USIP's news article by Thomas Omestad.

Lebanese reactions to the President Obama’s speech last night were sharply mixed, and tended to break down along existing political fault lines. Predictably, Hezbollah and its allies were openly and harshly critical of the speech, while groups associated with the March 14 Coalition of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri reacted more positively. Yet even among those more closely aligned with the US, the dominant note was a wary skepticism about the President's ability to follow through on his support for popular uprisings in the region, and a concern that his statements on Syria and on the Arab-Israeli conflict--while broadly welcomed--did not go far enough. With the onset of the 2012 presidential cycle in the U.S., Lebanese expressed a sense that domestic considerations are likely to constrain how far the president can go moving Israeli-Palestinian negotiations forward.

Amidst these doubts, however, the speech also provoked heated discussion of what the president's comments implied about America's role in the Middle East. His statement about the 1967 borders of Israel as the basis for negotiations, a position that places him at odds with the current Israeli government, together with the absence of any references to Saudi Arabia, which has taken a lead role in opposition to Arab uprisings, raised questions about America's two most important strategic relationships in the region. Did the speech suggest a strategic shift in America's Middle East policy? How will the U.S. balance the president's support for political change with his commitment to existing allies? Do his comments on the 1967 borders mean that he will again place settlements at the center of U.S. efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Almost two years after his historic Cairo speech, however, there is little inclination here to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt. Across the political spectrum, the Presidents words have come to matter less than his deeds. Lebanese will be watching carefully over the coming weeks for indications that U.S. policy in the region will now align with the principles that President Obama articulated.


May 19, 2011

USIP’s Steve Heydemann in Beirut, Lebanon discusses the latest developments in Syria, the regional response to the U.S.’s recently announced sanctions on the Syrian government, and what the region will want to hear in President Barack Obama’s speech.

What is the state of play in Syria?

The Syrian government is working hard to convey the impression that the uprising has been put down and that it is now prepared to address what President Bashar al-Assad himself has described as the legitimate demands of protesters. Despite these claims, military operations continue in some areas of Syria, including the village of Tel Kalkh, with significant civilian casualties. Some Syrians fleeing into Lebanon to escape these operations have been forced back across the border by Lebanese troops. The number of people still detained by the regime remains well over 10,000. In other opposition strongholds, calm is being maintained by force of arms.

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What is the mood like in Beirut? One of caution, excitement?

To outward appearances, life in Beirut continues as usual. Underneath the surface, there is anxiety and tension about the Syrian uprising and its possible consequences for Lebanon. There is little confidence that the new sanctions announced by the U.S., including those placed on President Assad himself, will change the regime's behavior. Yet there is also considerable skepticism about the claims of the Assad regime that it has gained the upper hand in suppressing the uprising. Informed Lebanese argue that even if the regime can impose calm in the short term, it has unleashed forces that will continue to roil Syrian politics for some time. They are doubtful that the regime possesses the capacity or will to respond to the demands of protestors. The overall prognosis here for Syria is rather gloomy.

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What has been the regional reaction to the U.S. sanctions announced on May 18? Do you expect them to be effective?

Syrian officials have expressed defiance about the new sanctions, and anger that President Assad was included among those subject to sanctions. Yet the regime's efforts to characterize the uprising as over and declare its willingness to address protestors' concerns are widely seen here as part of a strategy to undermine international support for sanctions.

On their own, the new sanctions will have very little tangible impact. In general, the Syrian officials named are not vulnerable to U.S. economic sanctions since they hold no assets in the U.S.

The sanctions are nonetheless important, however, for three reasons. First, they matter symbolically as an expression of US support for the uprising, and for the Arab Spring more broadly. Second, they matter politically, as an indication that the U.S. is moving closer toward an explicit demand that the Asad regime give up power. Third, they matter in providing European governments and the EU with justification for expanding their own sanctions on Syria—which will have more impact on those targeted—and in facilitating possible action by the U.N. Security Council.

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How closely will people in the region listen to President Barack Obama’s speech on May 19? What does he need to say?

The speech is widely anticipated here in the region, if with equal measures of hope and cynicism. It is expected that President Obama will lay out a strategic vision for U.S. relations with the Arab world in the wake of the momentous events that have reshaped the region's political landscape in the past half year. The hope is that President Obama will clearly align the U.S. with the democratic aspirations of the people of the region. Alongside this, however, is a cynical “wait and see” attitude about whether the U.S. will adjust its policies in keeping with the president's vision.

What Arab audiences will be listening for most closely, however, is what the president says about Palestine, and whether he will state explicitly that the borders created in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 must be the starting point for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations toward a two-state solution.

If the president says the right things—from a regional perspective—about the Arab Spring, but does not go far enough on the Palestine issue, Arab audiences are likely to be disappointed.

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