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
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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. 

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