Sunday, June 9, 2013

On Syria, John Kerry is left out on a limb

The effectiveness of the Obama administration’s strategy in Syria is dependent on there being a good relationship between President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. While nothing suggests there are problems on that front, Obama has limited interest in the matter that preoccupies the secretary most today: Syria.

Earlier this week, after meeting with Poland’s foreign minister, Kerry commented on efforts to hold an international conference on Syria in Geneva: “This is a very difficult process, which we come to late.” To many this was implicit criticism of the administration’s repeated efforts to avoid engaging with the Syrian crisis. Kerry added, “We are trying to prevent the sectarian violence from dragging Syria down into a complete and total implosion where it has broken up into enclaves, and the institutions of the state have been destroyed, with God knows how many additional refugees and how many innocent people killed.”

This breakdown has been going on for over two years, and has been characterized by all the alarming elements Kerry described. For him to suddenly outline the dangers seemed more a subtle criticism of how the Syrian situation was allowed to reach such a stage than acknowledgement of a fundamentally new approach in Washington.

The question is whether Kerry has much latitude to push the United States in directions that Obama hesitates to allow. The Obama White House has tightly controlled the foreign policy agenda in recent years. Hillary Clinton was influential enough to have her way on certain issues, but one thing she frequently had trouble doing was enrolling the president in efforts to advance her recommended policies.

Kerry may be less effective. He was not Obama’s first choice as secretary of state, and the president has been largely silent on Kerry’s efforts to organize the Geneva II conference. That’s ironic, because Kerry agreed to it with the Russians partly in order to lessen the pressure on the president to intervene in Syria, after Bashar Assad’s forces allegedly used chemical weapons against the rebels.

The president has also said nothing about Kerry’s attempt to resume negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. It is understandable that Obama does not want to put his name to politically risky courses of action that might fail; but without more presidential commitment, the momentum that Kerry requires to get both projects rolling will not be forthcoming, thwarting the secretary’s political aims.

For instance, there were reports Tuesday that France and the United Nations had concluded that the Syrian regime used limited quantities of chemical weapons in fighting near Aleppo some months ago. The White House once again stuck its head in the sand. The spokesman, Jay Carney, said, “[w]e need more information” that allows the administration to “establish a body of information that can be presented and reviewed, and upon which policy decisions can be made.” There was a man throwing out chaff to buy Obama room to maneuver. Indeed the administration has yet to gather such a body of information, and has set no deadline for doing so.

In that context you have to wonder what leverage Kerry really has. The Obama administration, probably with Kerry’s approval, has withheld $63 million slated for the Syrian opposition, angry with its refusal to attend the Geneva conference while Hezbollah continues to fight on Syrian territory. The opposition decision was unwise, since it embarrassed Washington and by way of contrast made the Assad regime, which has agreed to attend the conference, look flexible.

However, publicly undermining the opposition is not the way to go. It strengthens a regime that has long fought America in the Middle East, and it weakens America’s diplomatic hand, when the objective should be to reinforce the opposition and impose unity in its ranks. But that requires effort and initiative, which have been absent from the administration’s approach to Syria. In contrast, the Russians saw how poorly Bashar Assad managed the Syrian uprising, but they never undercut the Syrian leader, and now he is stronger thanks to their military assistance and blocking tactics at the United Nations.

With friends like the Obama administration, who needs enemies? But Kerry is lucid about Syria’s importance, whereas the White House seems not to be. All those who have argued that the United States has no strategic interest in Syria have drunk from Obama’s Kool-Aid. For starters, Iran and Hezbollah have reached the contrary conclusion, and have acted accordingly, which imposes a second look at that foolish proposition. It is surely in the interest of the U.S. to push Iran out of Syria, and to make it difficult for Hezbollah to rearm in any new Middle Eastern conflict. A contained Hezbollah is one that will be more careful about embarking on new wars, which could stabilize Lebanon.

And since Iran is the main rival of the United States in the region, and since its nuclear program happens to be a major concern of the Obama administration, weakening Tehran’s footprint in the Levant could facilitate negotiations to help resolve the nuclear standoff.

Nothing is clear-cut in the Middle East, but the potential gains from an Iranian defeat in Syria should nevertheless have been obvious from the very beginning to Obama’s foreign policy sages. The White House claims to adhere to political realism, but other than displaying hard-nosed indifference to the fate of the Syrian population, the administration has failed to apply realist principles in defense of American national interests to the events in Syria.

Kerry’s admission that the U.S. came late to Syria will not endear him to Obama’s current advisers at the White House. The secretary of state could find himself without political allies at a time when he needs them the most to implement a coherent Syria policy. But the arrival of Susan Rice as the new national security advisor to replace Tom Donilon and the appointment of Samantha Power as UNambassador, both of whom have taken a touger line on Syria than other officials, could play in Kerry’s favor. Perhaps the secretary won’t be as lonely as he might have been.

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