Almost five months later, Operation Desert Storm, led by a broad international coalition under the direction of then President George Bush (who had secured a resolution from the U.N. Security Council), began with aerial attacks and ended with the capitulation of Saddam’s forces after just five weeks.
Two things became clear: that the U.S. would take decisive action to enforce peace and security in the region when a “red line” was crossed; and secondly, that it would be methodical in building a strong coalition.
The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been waiting for a similar moment from President Barack Obama on the Syrian conflict. After months of endless prodding, with only a series of half-steps coming from the U.S., the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus (allegedly carried out by the Assad regime) finally seemed to have pushed Obama to take robust action on Syria.
But initial urgency by the U.S. to act has since subsided, or so it appears. With the passing of each day, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are left increasingly in the lurch, waiting for Obama, wondering if the U.S. has reversed its approach to the region that was heralded by the Gulf War over two decades ago.
In 1991, when military action was mobilized against Iraq, it was done so under the auspices of a U.N. resolution. And while the Arab world was divided on the intervention, the six GCC countries, along with Egypt and Syria, were part of the armed coalition that was formed. Twenty years later, the situation is markedly different as the Arab world contemplates involvement in military strikes against Syria.
Outside of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, enthusiasm to participate in a military coalition is weak at best. While Jordan will have to be involved due to its reliance on both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. for economic support, Syria’s other Arab neighbors, Lebanon and Iraq, have voiced staunch opposition to external intervention.
In an unambiguous statement, Egypt, under its new military leadership, also voiced its objections to “aggression in Syria.” Even the United Arab Emirates may not get involved without broad international legitimacy; unlike in Libya in 2011, this would constitute a military strike by Arab countries allied with the U.S. without any other legal or symbolic cover.
Obama’s initial enthusiasm for military action, juxtaposed with his subsequent hesitation, has furthered the Arab world’s reluctance to participate. Staunch Western allies like the United Kingdom have indicated a lack of desire to be involved, and it is still in doubt whether action would be approved by NATO or the U.N. In the current atmosphere, a broad coalition involving multiple regional actors is unlikely, especially from a military standpoint. Most of the “diplomacy” to build a coalition has so far been limited to public speeches by high-level U.S. officials, rather than effective diplomatic engagement in the region. It indicates to the Arab world that the U.S. is not serious about a response, and is itself perhaps buying time.
In Sunday’s Arab League meeting in Cairo, rhetoric was high. But it was clear that beyond Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the appetite for intervention had dissipated. Following two years of bluster, including countless meetings of the Friends of Syria, the moment for a decision finally came, and the U.S. blinked. The hawkish stance of the Arab League and even the GCC must, to Assad, have looked hollow. In the end, the statement by the Arab League called for “deterrent measures” by the U.N., without calling for military or unilateral action.
While we may yet see strikes on Syria or the symbolic contribution of military hardware (like fighter jets) by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the process has already overshadowed whatever the result may be. In many ways, whatever happens now in response will be far too little and far too late. All the while, the conflict in Syria will continue without any end in sight.