Friday, May 24, 2013

An empty threat from John Kerry?

In Jordan on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned that if the Syrian regime did not cooperate in forming a transitional government after the Geneva conference in June, the United States would consider giving military aid to the Syrian opposition.

“In the event that we can’t find that way forward, in the event that the Assad regime is unwilling to negotiate Geneva in good faith, we will also talk about our continued support, growing support for [the] opposition in order to permit them to continue to fight for the freedom of their country,” Kerry said.

The remarks probably impressed the Syrian opposition very little. They’ve heard it all before and know that their leverage in Geneva will be determined by the balance of power on the ground at the time of the conference. Weapons flows to the rebels remain limited, in part because the Obama administration does not want to compromise Geneva’s success. Whatever its difficulties in Qusayr, Bashar al-Assad’s regime has made military gains in recent weeks with the help of Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, who all view Geneva as an opportunity to transform those gains into political capital favoring Assad.

Diplomacy is frequently about using military advances to bolster a political agenda. President Barack Obama does not want to involve the United States in Syria’s war. That’s understandable, especially as American forces would in no way help resolve the Syrian crisis. However, he has also refused to use military means, including arming the rebels to achieve his diplomatic aims, which is incomprehensible.

Whereas the Americans appear to view Geneva as a confidence-building forum demanding compromise, the Russians and Iranians regard it as a means of consolidating Assad’s position - as uncompromising an attitude as one can imagine. That is one reason why the battle over Qusayr is so important to the Syrian president, and why we have seen an escalation in Tripoli. The combat between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tebbaneh is a distraction to occupy Lebanese Salafists who might otherwise have gone to Qusayr and delayed a regime victory there.

There has been much talk that Geneva will fail, that Qusayr makes a conference improbable, and so on. In fact, Geneva is likely to become a milestone in the Syria conflict, because it will define the political climate that comes afterward. Unlike the Friends of Syria meetings that have become echo chambers, Geneva will bring Syrian and international antagonists together for the first time.

Moreover, the United States wants Geneva. This means that Russia can extract concessions from an Obama administration keen to find a mechanism allowing it to avoid a major commitment in Syria.

In that context, Kerry’s remarks pose a question: Is Obama really willing to ratchet up military aid to the Syrian rebels if Geneva goes nowhere? In fact, he may consider any political process that emerges from the conference as another excuse to put off arming the rebels. Much like the president’s “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Kerry’s warning may be as elusive as it is indeterminate.

And here we can ask another question. Does Kerry have the pull in the White House necessary to impose a Syria policy with which the president and his closest advisors are uncomfortable? Recall that he was not Obama’s first choice for the secretary of state post, suggesting that his ability to sway the president on Syria is limited.

All of this is not good news for the Syrian opposition, which itself has not created a credible structure to lead the fight against Bashar al-Assad. This shortcoming cannot be blamed on the United States, even if the administration could have done far more to impose unity in the ranks rather than allowing countries such as Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and others to back contending opposition factions.

Today, it is unclear what the Obama administration wants from Geneva. Officially, it seeks a transitional government that would eventually ease Assad out of office. But unless Russia is on board (and it isn’t) that won’t happen. This leaves a second American priority, namely to avoid being drawn into the Syrian quagmire.

This second priority cripples the administration’s ability to push for the first. In order for Geneva not to founder, Obama would probably accept a political arrangement that buys him time, regardless of whether this harms the Syrian opposition. The U.S. is going to Geneva to keep away from Syria, while Russia is going to defend an ally.

Assad has already made it clear that he has no intention of stepping down, and Geneva will almost certainly not address the issue head-on because of Syrian and Russian opposition. At best the conference may create a political process that all sides can interpret as they wish: Washington will be able to say that the ultimate outcome is Assad’s departure, while Russia and Assad will be able to say that it is not. The subsequent phase will be shaped by that ambiguity as Assad and his enemies pursue efforts to press for the endgame they desire.

George Kennan once lamented the American tendency to make statements of diplomatic policy that they had neither the means nor the intention of implementing. The Obama administration does not have the will to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, notwithstanding Kerry’s remarks to the contrary. Geneva will only confirm this reluctance, because Washington won’t insist on unseating Assad if this undermines a political process that is agreed in Geneva. And when the magic word “process” is deployed in Washington, all else grinds to a halt.

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