Syria Conflict Brings Middle East Leaders To White House

In the coming weeks, the Obama administration plays host to the leaders of several Middle Eastern nations including the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Qatar and Jordan.

They are coming, in part, to register their concerns about the ongoing violence in Syria and to nudge the Obama administration to do more to tip the balance in favor of the rebels trying to oust Bashar Assad.

Already, there’s been no shortage of meetings on Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry is heading to yet another one is Istanbul later this month. But there’s a reason for this parade of Middle Eastern leaders to the White House, says Tamara Wittes of the Brookings Institution.

“Everyone knows that the decider on this issue is president Obama,” Wittes says. “Everybody knows that President Obama is operating in an environment where the American people are tired of foreign engagement. So if there’s a selling job to do, it’s in the White House.”

Wittes, however, is not expecting the leaders of the UAE, Turkey, Qatar and Jordan to persuade the president to make any dramatic changes in U.S. policy on Syria. The U.S. has already agreed to give direct, but non-lethal aid to rebels.

Frederic Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, says the white house hasn’t “crossed the Rubicon” in terms of offering weapons.

“What I think they will hear form the president is a plea that all assistance — lethal and non-lethal — that’s going to the Syrian opposition go through one source and one source only,” Hof says. “That’s the supreme military council lead by Gen. Salim Idris.”

Hoff says the meetings offer a chance to coordinate policies on Syria to the extent that the United States and the key countries can really promote the fortunes of Syrian nationalists as opposed to “pseudo Islamic fighters” and extremists.

“I think that’s the name of the game, and I suspect that’s what these leaders are going to be hearing loud and clear from the president,” he says.

President Obama will also hear serious concerns about the humanitarian crisis in the region, says the Carnegie Endowment’s Marwan Muasher, who is a former foreign minister of Jordan.

“The refugee situation is becoming just unsustainable,” Muasher says. “In Jordan, the figures are that already we have about 500,000. By the end of the year, maybe 1 [to] 1.2 million refugees; that’s 20 percent of the population.”

U.S. officials are said to be discussing the possibility of setting up safe zones inside Syria with U.S. and Jordanian-trained rebels, but Muasher thinks the U.S. will take only incremental steps.

“They will probably keep inching towards more involvement in the coming months,” he says. “The question on everybody’s mind is by the time this involvement becomes a game changer, if it becomes a game changer, will there be a country to talk about.”

Muasher is also skeptical about the administration’s incremental approach to Middle East peace. Secretary of State Kerry is trying to revive peace talks and promote the long dormant Arab peace initiative.

Wittes of the Brookings Institution says it makes sense to use that initiative as an incentive because it offers Israel normal relations with Muslim countries if a peace deal is reached.

“So it gives the Palestinians a boost and it also puts forward a vision to Israel, and more particularly to the Israeli public, of what some of the benefits are that peace could bring,” she says, “that there are states that are willing to accept them in the region, if they can resolve their conflict with the Palestinians.”

Wittes predicts the upcoming meetings with Middle Eastern leaders won’t be easy, but says they are important given the dramatic changes across the region.

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