Kerry’s Impossible Demand of Syria

Assad’s ouster can’t happen now. Better to deal with the realities on the ground.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 10: Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on December 10, 2013 in Washington, DC. During his testimony Secretary Kerry asked on behalf of the Obama Administration that congress hold off on sanctioning Iran to give diplomacy a chance to work its course.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
See more stories about...
Michael Hirsh
Jan. 24, 2014, 11:29 a.m.

In Geneva this week, Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry is try­ing to com­pel an en­trenched dic­tat­or to sur­render his con­sid­er­able power so as to ap­pease an op­pos­i­tion group that has no power. Not sur­pris­ingly, the talks over Syr­ia’s fu­ture are go­ing nowhere and, if he con­tin­ues on this course, Kerry may well prove his crit­ics cor­rect when they say he is out of touch with real­ity.

Per­haps the biggest pre­tense un­der­ly­ing the Geneva II con­fer­ence on Syr­ia is that what’s hap­pen­ing on the ground today is any­thing like what it was a year and a half ago, when on June 30, 2012, then-Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton and Rus­si­an For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lav­rov signed a joint com­mu­nique that called for a polit­ic­al “trans­ition” in Syr­ia. At the time, Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad was be­sieged and even the Rus­si­ans were hint­ing to then-U.N. en­voy Kofi An­nan that he might be pushed out. The rebel op­pos­i­tion was also more uni­fied and sec­u­lar — in oth­er words, ac­cept­able to the West as an al­tern­at­ive to As­sad. Today As­sad is amply sup­plied by the Rus­si­ans and sup­por­ted by Ir­a­ni­an-backed Hezbol­lah; the op­pos­i­tion has frac­tured bit­terly and its strongest ele­ments are rad­ic­al Is­lam­ist mi­li­tias that are fight­ing each oth­er (lead­ing some in­tel­li­gence ex­perts to sug­gest that as bad as As­sad is, what might fol­low would be worse). The Syr­i­an Na­tion­al Co­ali­tion rep­res­ent­ing the rebels in Geneva is in­creas­ingly com­ing to re­semble the Ir­aqi Na­tion­al Con­gress led by Ahmed Chalabi be­fore the 2003 Ir­aq in­va­sion: It is a group that is largely made up of ex­iles and without in­flu­ence in­side its own coun­try.

So the ques­tion is, what is Kerry do­ing by re­peat­ing the same calls for As­sad’s ouster that we were hear­ing a year and a half ago?

“There is no way, no way pos­sible, that a man who has led a bru­tal re­sponse to his own people can re­gain le­git­im­acy to gov­ern,” Kerry said Wed­nes­day, sidestep­ping the fact that the U.S. gov­ern­ment struck a deal with As­sad’s gov­ern­ment last fall to sur­render its chem­ic­al weapons, and As­sad him­self has called for new elec­tions.

If he per­sists in this line, Kerry’s ap­proach ap­pears to be a cer­tain path to dip­lo­mat­ic dis­aster in Geneva and con­tinu­ing blood­shed in Syr­ia. Des­pite the drastic­ally changed power bal­ance on the ground, the Syr­i­an op­pos­i­tion in Geneva is also liv­ing in a pre­tend real­ity. It is in­sist­ing that it won’t meet the gov­ern­ment in face-to-face talks over oth­er is­sues, in­clud­ing refugees, un­less Dam­as­cus puts the is­sue of a trans­ition­al gov­ern­ment on the table. Dam­as­cus, in re­sponse, is threat­en­ing to walk out of the talks.

“Kerry still wants the whole loaf,” says Joshua Land­is, a Syr­ia ex­pert at the Uni­versity of Ok­lahoma. “The ques­tion now is does he take half a loaf — a cease-fire where the re­gime owns the the south and west, as they have for two years, the rebels con­trol the north and east, and the Kur­ds own the very far north­east.” Most Syr­i­ans res­ist the idea of par­ti­tion, but any cease-fire in the fore­see­able fu­ture would have to ac­know­ledge those en­trenched real­it­ies on the ground.

Kerry, in con­tinu­ing to say that As­sad has lost his le­git­im­acy and must go, may be scor­ing polit­ic­al points in the Ar­ab world, which has grown bit­ter and crit­ic­al of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hands-off ap­proach to the Syr­i­an civil war. But per­sist­ing with a hard line will likely only res­ult in a very hard fall in Geneva. 

What We're Following See More »
BIG CHANGE FROM WHEN HE SELF-FINANCED
Trump Enriching His Businesses with Donor Money
6 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Donald Trump "nearly quintupled the monthly rent his presidential campaign pays for its headquarters at Trump Tower to $169,758 in July, when he was raising funds from donors, compared with March, when he was self-funding his campaign." A campaign spokesman "said the increased office space was needed to accommodate an anticipated increase in employees," but the campaign's paid staff has actually dipped by about 25 since March. The campaign has also paid his golf courses and restaurants about $260,000 since mid-May.

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Variety Looks at How Michelle Obama Has Leveraged Pop Culture
7 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

“My view is, first you get them to laugh, then you get them to listen," says Michelle Obama in a new profile in Variety. "So I’m always game for a good joke, and I’m not so formal in this role. There’s very little that we can’t do that people wouldn’t appreciate.” According to writer Ted Johnson, Mrs. Obama has leveraged the power of pop culture far beyond her predecessors. "Where are the people?" she asks. "Well, they’re not reading the op-ed pieces in the major newspapers. They’re not watching Sunday morning news talk shows. They’re doing what most people are doing: They are watching TV.”

Source:
RUSSIAN HACKERS LIKELY BEHIND THE ATTACKS
New York Times, Other News Organizations Hacked
9 hours ago
THE DETAILS

The FBI and other US security agencies are currently investigating a series of computer breaches found within The New York Times and other news organizations. It is expected that the hacks were carried out by individuals working for Russian intelligence. It is believed that these cyber attacks are part of a "broader series of hacks that also have focused on Democratic Party organizations, the officials said."

Source:
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY STUDENTS PETITIONED
NLRB: Graduate Students Can Unionize
9 hours ago
THE DETAILS

In a 3-1 decision, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of Columbia University graduate students, granting them the legal right to unionize. The petition was brought by a number of teaching assistants enrolled in graduate school. This decision could pave the way for thousands of new union members, depending on if students at other schools nationwide wish to join unions. A number of universities spoke out in opposition to this possibility, saying injecting collective bargaining into graduate school could create a host of difficulties.

Source:
DIFFERENT KIND OF CONVENTION BOUNCE
Cruz Approval Ratings Underwater
10 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Following Texas Senator Ted Cruz's controversial decision not to endorse Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention, instead telling voters to "vote (their) conscience," a new poll out today shows that his approval ratings have sunk. The poll from Public Policy Polling shows that 39 percent of Texans approve of the job Cruz is doing, compared to 48 percent who don't approve. Additionally, despite winning the GOP primary in the state, the poll found that if the primary was held today, Trump would garner 52 percent of support to just 38 percent for Cruz.

Source:
×