Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Washington blunders yet again in Syria

It is not reassuring that we know next to nothing about the details of the international conference on Syria that has been endorsed by the United States and Russia. It is even more worrisome that both countries view the conference in very different ways.

For the Obama administration, a conference would help initiate negotiations between the Syrian opposition and the regime, preferably leading to a transition away from Syrian President Bashar Assad. It could also lower the tension in Syria at a moment when the conflict there is threatening to engulf neighboring countries. And it would create an opening to address the fate of hundreds of thousands Syrian refugees in more practical ways.

Implicitly, talks would also help marginalize the most radical groups opposing Assad, by giving mainstream opposition groups room to shape a settlement. Given that many Syrians are likely to welcome measures to reduce the violence, so-called moderates would gain the upper hand, while the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, which opposes negotiations, would find itself increasingly isolated.

For Russia, a conference must allow Assad to gain the upper hand in Syria. From the start the Russians have sought talks between the Syrian president and opposition forces amenable to a dialogue with him. This failed, but it is still the belief in Moscow that once any talks begin, they would allow Assad to bargain from a position of strength. Even in the doubtful event that talks were to lead to his exit, the reasoning is that his system would remain in place, and with it many of those with whom Russia has collaborated in Syria.

Moreover, the Russians feel this would vindicate their decision to arm Assad and provide him with intelligence assistance and military advice. Therefore a conference would consolidate his army’s recent advances, even as the Obama administration has decided to suspend plans to arm the Syrian rebels, to give the conference a chance. This decision has encouraged the two European countries most insistent about suspending the arms embargo on Syria, France and the United Kingdom, to become more hesitant about going ahead with that plan.

The poor American preparation for a conference has been criticized. In a recent article for the Foreign Policy website, Michael Weiss of the Institute of Modern Russia noted that the conference would be based on the Geneva Protocol of June 2012. This calls for a “Syrian-led political process leading to a transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.” The protocol demands an end to armed violence by both sides and the release of political prisoners. It allows journalists greater freedom of movement throughout Syria. And it seeks the “consolidation of full calm and stability.”

However, Weiss adds, “since this would-be road map was cobbled together almost a year ago, more than 50,000 Syrians have died in the Assad regime’s desperate attempt to crush the uprising.” In other words, a return to Geneva takes into consideration neither the gains made by the opposition nor the crimes of the Syrian leadership.

The Americans have locked themselves into a situation where the pursuit of their stated objectives in Syria seriously risks undermining the interests of their allies, while Russia is under no obligation to surrender anything, and will continue to supply arms to the Syrian government. Nor are Iran and Hezbollah a part of the process (and the U.S. does not want them to be), so Hezbollah can continue attacking rebel-held areas in and around Homs, which will only strengthen the Russians’ hand.

Of course, the Syrian opposition can always say no to an international conference. But such a rejection would alienate the U.S. at a time when the military momentum appears to favor Assad’s forces. And while the Obama administration does not want to push the Syrian opposition more firmly into the hands of radical Islamist groups, it probably feels that such groups could be contained if a consensus to resolve the Syrian crisis peacefully is reached at a conference.

It is equally unclear how the U.S. plans to bring about Assad’s departure, a position Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed in Rome following his visit to Russia. After all, it is Assad who will attend or be represented at any international gathering, which will bestow on him undeniable legitimacy, backed by Moscow. To expect him to then agree to a political process that may ultimately lead to his ouster, in response to the demands of a Syrian opposition that currently finds itself on the defensive, is downright laughable.

The Obama administration’s mistake has been to suspend discussion of arming the rebels, when it should have done precisely the contrary: bolster the opposition militarily so that it would come to a conference in an advantageous position. But for the Americans, diplomatic success is all about mood and mutual confidence, and so goodwill gestures are necessary, even when they happen to be self-defeating. How odd for an administration that embraces political realism.

The Russians in turn, have every intention of sending Assad to a conference well positioned to resist all efforts to make him step down. Indeed, the Syrian president will likely impose many conditions before agreeing to be present at a meeting that, he and the Russians know, the U.S. is keen to see succeed, since it would allow Barack Obama to resist mounting calls for greater involvement in Syria.

Peace in Syria is desirable, but not at any price. American miscalculations will further damage the Syrian opposition and give Assad the means to use negotiations to impose his will on his depleted rivals and remain in office. Neither Russia nor Iran will challenge this. And with a short-sighted, risk-averse, amoral administration in Washington, they know they can get their way.

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