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U.S. leadership on Syria brings long-awaited relief to Group of Eight allies

- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 16, 2013

When President Obama arrives in Northern Ireland for the Group of Eight summit Monday, some U.S. allies will wonder why he was late to a different party — the decision to intervene more strongly in the Syrian civil war.

The American president isn't likely to be pleading with G-8 friends to help rebels overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad. Rather, analysts say, Britain, France and other nations will breathe a sigh of relief that the U.S. finally has decided to throw its weight behind the effort to topple the Syrian leader.

The White House announced last week that intelligence reports confirmed that Mr. Assad used chemical agents such as sarin gas against his own people, triggering a stronger U.S. response and a commitment in Syria that has been long-awaited by other nations. American involvement now will involve sending arms directly to Syrian rebels, in addition to more medical and communications supplies and potential training for opposition forces.

The administration may need to do even more, some Capitol Hill Republicans — and even Democrats — said Sunday.

Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the White House action a "first step."

"The reality is we need to tip the scales, not simply to nudge them," he said on CNN's "State of the Union."

On "NBC's "Meet the Press," Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said the Obama administration's objective should be to "balance the military power, and providing small arms won't do it."

Many others following the Syrian crisis share Mr. Graham's skepticism.

"Until this recent announcement by the Obama administration, the allies have been looking for U.S. leadership. It is the absence of U.S. leadership that, in particular, explains the longevity of this conflict," said Murhaf Jouejati, a professor of Middle East studies at the National Defense University and George Washington University. A specialist on the region, Mr. Jouejati is a native of Syria, which is being torn apart by a bloody civil war that has raged for more than two years and has claimed more than 92,000 lives, according to United Nations estimates.

"Now that the U.S. has taken leadership, each country among the allies will have a particular role to play," he said. "Everybody was waiting for the United States. And it was the United States that was not moving."

Key meeting for world leaders

Mr. Obama will arrive Monday morning at the resort in Northern Ireland where the summit is being held and will participate in sessions through Tuesday. From there, the president and his family will travel to Berlin, where Mr. Obama will give a speech Wednesday at the Brandenburg Gate.

This G-8 gathering could be pivotal for Mr. Obama as he looks for a way to defuse the situation in Syria. Late Friday, he held a conference call with British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the crisis. In addition to those leaders, the heads of Russia, Japan and Canada will attend the summit.

"He'll be discussing with [other G-8] leaders what the best way forward is. He'll hear from them what their plans are. Thus far, they've been important partners," Ben Rhodes, the administration's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said during a White House press briefing Friday. "This will be an ongoing dialogue between the president and his fellow leaders."

The international community's new tack in Syria is expected to dominate the G-8 agenda, but major developments in Iran, North Korea and other parts of the world also will be addressed.

The summit will be the first significant meeting of world leaders since Iran elected a moderate president late last week. Hasan Rowhani, a favorite among Iranian reformers, will take the reins of power from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, though it is unclear whether the change will slow Iran's quest to develop nuclear weapons.

Also over the weekend, North Korean state media reported that leaders in the communist nation are willing to sit down with the U.S. for "high-level talks"in an attempt to ease tension in the region. How the U.S. and its allies will deal with North Korea and its nuclear ambitions, and whether the proposed talks will materialize, also will be important parts of the G-8 meeting.

U.S. at odds with allies

U.S. domestic policy also will be raised, though not by Mr. Obama's choice. Analysts say European leaders are likely to voice their displeasure — perhaps in public — with American surveillance programs. Recent revelations that the National Security Agency has gathered telephone records and other data on millions of Americans without their knowledge will draw rebuke from figures at the G-8, said Heather A. Conley, senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Europe has a much deeper desire for privacy. Not that Americans aren't deeply concerned about this, but we tend to view security as a greater priority; there have to be some sacrifices made. In Europe, they tend to think there shouldn't be any sacrifices made," she said.

European nations, Ms. Conley said, already are disheartened with the Obama administration's handling of the war on terrorism. Their hope that Mr. Obama would depart from policies of George W. Bush has been dashed as the incumbent president has followed the same playbook as his predecessor.

"There is some disappointment in Europe. They thought there would be a more significant break on these practices between the Bush administration and the Obama administration," Ms. Conley said. "Whether it's drones or another issue, the president is actually implementing some of these policies. In some ways Europe is awakening to the fact that there is a continuance of U.S. policy. There is a preconceived idea that Americans are very security-conscious and will be willing to sacrifice some of their liberties for the sake of security."

Resistance from Russia

At the other end of the spectrum, Russian President Vladimir Putin has voiced support for U.S. surveillance policies, saying the collection of phone records is a step that a "civilized society" should take to fight terrorism.

On Syria, however, the U.S. is at odds with Russia, an ally of the Assad regime. The G-8 summit will serve as the venue for a face-to-face meeting between Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin, who have very different opinions on the way forward in Syria.

Late last week, Russia rejected U.S. assertions that Mr. Assad had used chemical weapons. Mr. Putin's key senior foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said the American case "does not look convincing."

Although Russia isn't likely to get on board with the plan to assist Syrian rebels, it may begrudgingly accept intervention if the U.S. and its allies appear united in the effort, Mr. Jouejati said.

At the G-8 forum, Mr. Obama is expected to push Mr. Putin to back a plan to remove Mr. Assad from power, or at least help facilitate peace meetings between the Syrian government and its opponents.

"Russia is very impressed by power. If it sees there is a U.S. determination to continue backing the opposition I think Russia would become more flexible," Mr. Jouejati said.

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