John Kerry is on his maiden overseas voyage as secretary of state, and one place besides Israel he won’t be stopping, unlike on several previous trips to the region, is Damascus. But Syria will be this trip’s Topic A.
It is being billed as a listening tour, so look for a lot of talk about how to push Syrian President Bashar Assad out but don’t expect any significant change in US policy; President Obama, fearful of the blowback of so many past US intervention efforts in the region, is still unwilling to send the opposition the weapons they want.
Kerry’s trip ran into its first snag before even landing in Europe when leaders of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the main rebel group, threatened to boycott the meeting in Rome with Kerry and other foreign ministers to protest what it considers insufficient international support.
Syria will also be the major topic of Kerry’s bilateral meetings with leaders in Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. It will also be on the agenda when he meets in Berlin with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The Russians are Assad’s prime enabler.
With Europe his first destination, the administration is signaling that it is pivoting back to Europe from its first term emphasis on Asia.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (he succeeded Joe Biden, who got a better job) Kerry led several delegations the Syrian capital, starting in February 2009, to meet with President Bashar Assad, who he thought could be wooed away from Iran.
Senator Kerry told the Syrian dictator he and the Obama administration considered that country “an essential player in bringing peace and stability to the region.” After the Damascus meeting he reported, “Both the United States and Syria have a very deep interest... in having a very frank exchange on any differences [and] agreements that we have about the possibilities of peace in this region.”
Assad told Kerry that future bilateral relations required Washington to have “a proper understanding” of regional issues.
Kerry went back two months later in the futile hope of opening a dialogue between the two countries. Any chance of that collapsed by 2011. The senator wanted to return but the Obama White House blocked the visit, fearing it would signal “western weakness” at a time when Syria was stirring things up in Lebanon.
Kerry later praised Assad as “very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had,” and that he had asked the Syrian leader to show some signs of “good faith” to build a better relationship with Washington. He came away empty handed but with his eyes finally opened.
Senator Kerry’s illusions about salvaging a relationship with Assad have been replaced by Secretary Kerry’s promise of – as yet undisclosed – “new ideas” to hasten the dictator’s departure.
President Obama’s aversion to greater US involvement, particularly sending the rebels the anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons they need to deal with Assad’s superior forces, has limited American influence among the opposition.
The president has called for Assad’s removal and has provided nonlethal assistance, but he shares the American public’s aversion to getting involved in another Middle Eastern war, even to the point of rejecting the recommendations of his previous secretary of state, CIA director, defense secretary and top generals to arm the rebels.
Obama is “wisely” avoiding military action on behalf of the rebels, many of whom may be worse than Assad, but he still lacks a longer-term strategy aimed at making sure that al-Qaida and its jihadist allies don’t replace him, says Leslie Gelb, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The top goal of the United States and its allies must be helping the secular rebel forces – Sunni, Shi’ite and Alawite – find common ground and a popular approach to preventing the increasingly potent and popular Sunni extremist fighters from prevailing, he said. A victory by the extremists could have disastrous results not only for Syrians but also well beyond its borders.
The Sunni Islamists would seek to impose Sharia law, something most Syrians, who tend toward secular, would not want, and they’d likely spark sectarian revenge, particularly on the Alawites, the sect of the ruling Assad clan and a group experienced in brutal repression.
Syria could also fragment into assorted ethnic and political enclaves, with the chaos spilling across the borders into Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Israel.
A terrorist al-Qaida regime on Israel’s borders would be intolerable, more so if it seeks to export its revolution to neighboring Jordan.
The Syrian death toll has passed 70,000 and the uprising heads into its third year with no sign of abating. Russia and Iran continuing to prop up Assad with arms, money and political backing. Assad “thinks he’s winning and the opposition is losing,” Kerry told his confirmation hearing.
“A failed Syrian state also would provide a power vacuum into which outside jihadis could flow, permitting them to radicalize local Islamists and obtain dangerous weapons from captured regime arsenals.
And once a state collapses – as we know from the Iraq experience – it is very difficult to rebuild,” observed Trudy Rubin at Philly.com.
Kerry’s meetings are unlikely to produce any dramatic new policy, but if they lead to more calls for Assad to surrender they’re missing the point. As Gelb notes, the urgent necessity is to prevent al-Qaida and its allies from dominating the opposition and creating a terrorist state.
The Obama administration has not offered a realistic strategy for accomplishing that – but neither have the legion of critics demanding firmer action, without defining exactly what “firmer” means.
©2013 DouglasMBloomfield firstname.lastname@example.org www.thejewishweek.com/blogs/douglas_bloomfield