Obama Botched an Earlier Syria Peace Deal

One year and 80,000 lives ago, the U.N. envoy had carved a path for a government “transition.” But the White House and Hillary Clinton rejected it.

President Barack Obama speaks on the government shutdown and the budget and debt ceiling debates in Congress during a visit to M. Luis Construction, a construction company, in Rockville, Maryland, October 3, 2013, on the third day of the government shutdown.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Oct. 3, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

Des­pite Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry’s fren­et­ic ef­forts, pre­par­a­tions for the “Geneva II” peace con­fer­ence on Syr­ia’s civil war are already founder­ing. The rebel move­ment has be­come in­creas­ingly rad­ic­al­ized against Syr­i­an dic­tat­or Bashar al-As­sad and more frac­tured. A newly con­fid­ent As­sad, mean­while, has some­what re­le­git­im­ized him­self as a sig­nat­ory to a new chem­ic­al-weapons ban ne­go­ti­ated by the United States and Rus­sia un­der U.N. aus­pices, which his gov­ern­ment is tasked with im­ple­ment­ing over the next year. De­fy­ing glob­al op­pro­bri­um over his use of sar­in gas, As­sad has also po­si­tioned him­self in a series of high-pro­file TV in­ter­views as a prefer­able al­tern­at­ive to Is­lam­ist rebels who want to cre­ate a fun­da­ment­al­ist state.

All of which should prompt a reex­am­in­a­tion of the first Geneva con­fer­ence in the sum­mer of 2012, on which Kerry’s new push for peace is based. Ac­cord­ing to some of­fi­cials in­volved, per­haps the greatest tragedy of Syr­ia is that, some 80,000 lives ago, Pres­id­ent Obama might have had with­in his grasp a work­able plan to end the vi­ol­ence, one that is far less pos­sible now. But amid the polit­ics of the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion — when GOP nom­in­ee Mitt Rom­ney reg­u­larly ac­cused Obama of be­ing “soft” — the ad­min­is­tra­tion did little to make it work and simply took a hard line against As­sad, an­ger­ing the spe­cial U.N. Syr­ia en­voy, Kofi An­nan, and prompt­ing the former U.N. sec­ret­ary-gen­er­al to quit, ac­cord­ing to sev­er­al of­fi­cials in­volved.

Former mem­bers of An­nan’s ne­go­ti­at­ing team say that after then-Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton and Rus­si­an For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lav­rov on June 30, 2012, jointly signed a com­mu­nique draf­ted by An­nan, which called for a polit­ic­al “trans­ition” in Syr­ia, there was as much mo­mentum for a deal then as Kerry achieved a year later on chem­ic­al weapons. Af­ter­ward, An­nan flew from Geneva to Mo­scow and gained what he be­lieved to be Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin’s con­sent to be­gin to quietly push As­sad out. But sud­denly both the U.S. and Bri­tain is­sued pub­lic calls for As­sad’s ouster, and An­nan felt blind­sided. Im­me­di­ately af­ter­ward, against his ad­vice, then-U.N. Am­bas­sad­or Susan Rice offered up a “Chapter 7” res­ol­u­tion open­ing the door to force against As­sad, which An­nan felt was pre­ma­ture.

An­nan resigned a month later. At the time, the soft-spoken Ghanai­an dip­lo­mat was cagey about his reas­ons, ap­pear­ing to blame all sides. “I did not re­ceive all the sup­port that the cause de­served,” An­nan told re­port­ers in Geneva. He also cri­ti­cized what he called “fin­ger-point­ing and name-call­ing in the Se­cur­ity Coun­cil.” But former seni­or aides and U.N. of­fi­cials say in private that An­nan blamed the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in large part. “The U.S. couldn’t even stand by an agree­ment that the sec­ret­ary of State had signed in Geneva,” said one former close An­nan aide who would dis­cuss the talks only on con­di­tion of an­onym­ity. “He quit in frus­tra­tion. I think it was clear that the White House was very wor­ried about seem­ing to do a deal with the Rus­si­ans and be­ing soft on Putin dur­ing the cam­paign.” One of the biggest Re­pub­lic­an cri­ti­cisms of Obama at the time was that he had, in an em­bar­rass­ing “open mike” mo­ment, prom­ised Mo­scow more “flex­ib­il­ity” on mis­sile de­fense after the elec­tion.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials deny this ac­count, as do some who were in­volved at the State De­part­ment. Non­ethe­less, Fre­der­ic Hof, a U.S. am­bas­sad­or who was Clin­ton’s spe­cial ad­viser for trans­ition in Syr­ia at the time, agrees that the ne­go­ti­ations could have been bet­ter handled. The harsh de­mand that “As­sad must go” voiced by Clin­ton and Brit­ish For­eign Sec­ret­ary Wil­li­am Hag­ue was “gra­tu­it­ous,” says Hof, a seni­or fel­low at the At­lantic Coun­cil. “Per­haps a great­er ef­fort should have been made to give An­nan the time to do his due di­li­gence.” Still, Hof says he saw no evid­ence that the ad­min­is­tra­tion was pos­tur­ing for polit­ic­al reas­ons.

A cur­rent seni­or State De­part­ment of­fi­cial con­cedes that one of the prob­lems with mak­ing the An­nan com­mu­nique work may have been Clin­ton’s dis­taste for get­ting in­volved in ex­ten­ded dir­ect me­di­ation, in dra­mat­ic con­trast to her suc­cessor, who has opened up ne­go­ti­ations on sev­er­al fronts at once — with Syr­ia and the Rus­si­ans, with Ir­an, and between the Palestini­ans and Is­rael­is. “We’ve made more trips to the Mideast in the last nine months than she made in four years,” says this of­fi­cial.

While Clin­ton ex­celled at “soft” power — selling Amer­ica’s mes­sage abroad — one emer­ging cri­ti­cism of her four-year ten­ure at State was that she con­sist­ently avoided get­ting her hands dirty with dir­ect me­di­ation. Clin­ton agreed to leave key ne­go­ti­ations in crisis spots — in par­tic­u­lar the Mideast and south-cent­ral Asia — to spe­cial en­voys such as George Mitchell and Richard Hol­brooke, and she rarely stepped in as each of them failed. Vet­er­an re­port­er Dav­id Ro­hde, in an as­sess­ment as Clin­ton was leav­ing of­fice in Janu­ary, sug­ges­ted that Clin­ton wanted to avoid em­bar­rass­ment or fail­ure ahead of a 2016 pres­id­en­tial run; he quoted one State De­part­ment of­fi­cial as say­ing that he was “really happy to have someone in the job who does not re­tain polit­ic­al am­bi­tions.”

Still, Hof and crit­ics of the ad­min­is­tra­tion say a 2012 peace deal would have been a steep, up­hill climb at best. “I think there were a couple of prob­lems that raised their ugly head in the im­me­di­ate wake of this thing be­ing signed on June 30,” Hof says. “Num­ber one, it be­came clear to both An­nan and the Rus­si­ans that As­sad had no in­terest whatever in be­ing “˜transitioned.’ He was able to read the text of the Geneva agree­ment quite ac­cur­ately…. By the same token, the op­pos­i­tion was un­happy with Kofi’s hand­work be­cause there was no ex­pli­cit lan­guage to the ef­fect that As­sad will step down.”

But what happened next was that the Geneva com­mu­nique dis­ap­peared onto a dusty shelf; even Kerry when he took of­fice chided the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion for be­ing “late” in push­ing peace. And what Kerry faces now is a newly as­sert­ive As­sad and a vastly more frac­tured op­pos­i­tion riddled with ex­treme ele­ments that want no part of a U.S.- or West­ern-brokered peace. All of which makes that missed op­por­tun­ity even more pain­ful.

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