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
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
MOST WATCHED EVER?
Little Ratings Drop-Off from Beginning to End of Debate
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

The conventional wisdom is already emerging that Donald Trump opened last night's debate well, but that he faded badly down the stretch. And most viewers apparently witnessed it. "The early Nielsen data confirms that viewership stayed high the entire time. Contrary to some speculation, there was not a big drop-off after the first hour of the 98-minute debate." Final data is still being tallied, but "Monday's face-off may well have been the most-watched debate in American history. CNN and other cable news channels saw big increases over past election years. So did some of the broadcast networks."

Source:
FUNDING RUNS OUT ON FRIDAY
Federal Agencies Prepare for Govt Shutdown
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

As Congress continues to bicker on riders to a continuing resolution, federal agencies have started working with the Office of Management and Budget to prepare for a government shutdown, which will occur if no continuing resolution is passed by 11:59 p.m. on Friday night. The OMB held a call with agencies on Sept. 23, one that is required one week before a possible shutdown. The government last shut down for 16 days in 2013, and multiple shutdowns have been narrowly avoided since then. It is expected that Congress will reach a deal before the clock strikes midnight, but until it does, preparations will continue.

Source:
OBAMA’S ENVIRONMENTAL LEGACY IN THE BALANCE
Obama’s Clean Power Plan Faces Courts
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

President Obama's Clean Power Plan, a large pillar of his efforts to leave a lasting environmental legacy, "goes before the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit today." The plan "imposes the first national limits on carbon pollution from power plants." A number of consolidated cases finds 27 states challenging this plan, which was blocked by the Supreme Court in February pending decisions from lower courts. The states will argue that the government doesn't have the right to impose restrictions requiring them to shutter plans and restructure full industries.

Source:
UNCLEAR IF THIS WILL AFFECT POLLS
Instant Reaction: Clinton Won Debate
3 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

There seems to be a clear consensus forming about Monday's debate: Hillary Clinton was the winner. One focus group of undecided Pennsylvania voters, conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz, found 16 favored Clinton while five picked Donald Trump. In a Florida focus group organized by CNN, 18 of 20 undecided voters saw Clinton as the winner.

DIDN’T BECAUSE CHELSEA WAS IN THE ROOM
Trump Wanted to Bring Up Bill Clinton
3 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

As both candidates walked off the stage, Donald Trump lauded himself for being restrained and for not bringing up Bill Clinton. "I didn’t want to say—her husband was in the room along with her daughter, who I think is a very nice young lady—and I didn’t want to say what I was going to say about what’s been going on in their life," Trump said. Trump claims he stopped himself from hitting Bill Clinton because daughter Chelsea was in the room.

Source:
×