How Would US Attack on Syria Affect Washington's Asia Pivot?
August 30, 2013

What does a possible U.S. attack on Syria mean for the Obama administration's pivot to Asia, which Washington is presenting as part of its disengagement from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Preparations for a possible U.S. attack on Syria were part of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's talks with Asian allies in Brunei.

"I think it was made clear by President Obama, and I have said it on a number of occasions, that if any action would be taken against Syria it would be an international collaboration," he said.

Hagel meeting with Asian defense ministers amid U.S. preparations for attacking Syria is an important sign for the region, according to Asia analyst Patrick Cronin.

"These are countries that really look to the United States, not just for economic influence but ultimately for the security insurance," Cronin said. "And for the United States not to show up at a meeting like this, not to take a trip that has long been planned, would send the completely wrong signal."

But what does it mean for the Obama administration's so-called Asia Pivot of military, diplomatic, and commercial resources to the region?

"Syria is knocking Obama off his Asian mojo," said Asia analyst Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute. "Not because Syria is that significant but because it is a perfect encapsulation of the problem of saying we are choosing between regions and yet not really being able to and then leaving the area that you said you were going to focus on somewhat in the lurch."

With China boosting patrols in disputed waters of the South China Sea, Asian allies are looking for a more robust U.S. military presence at a time when Washington is again focusing on conflict in the Middle East.

"The very fact that you are now consumed with figuring out how to deal with Syria means that beyond the rhetoric of you showing up at these meetings," noted Auslin, "are you really able to commit resources to both parts of the globe?"

Resources for the Asia Pivot were to come from U.S. drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. But budget cuts have slowed that redeployment even before the military build-up off Syria, says Asia analyst Doug Bandow.

"What we are seeing with Syria now shows how hard it is for the U.S. to maintain this kind of global presence at a time of shrinking resources. And that's going to affect everything," explained Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute.

Bandow said the United States as a Pacific power does not outweigh long-standing U.S. security interests in the Middle East.

"America has alliances in the Middle East. We still have concern about oil in the Middle East, human rights issues in the Middle East," he said. "It's very hard for the administration to pull away from that. So the Asians need to look at this and realize, as that drawdown happens, they shouldn't expect to be exempt."

China is warning against a military response to Syrian chemical weapons attacks.

"The only way out of the Syrian issue is a political resolution," stressed an anchor on China State Television. "So all parties ought to cautiously handle the Syrian chemical weapons issue to avoid interfering in efforts to resolve the Syrian issue politically."

Though China has in the past joined Russia in vetoing a tougher U.N. approach to Syria, U.S. officials say Moscow rather than Beijing is leading opposition to Security Council action against Syria.