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How Obama Ended Up Following Putin’s Syria Script and Giving Assad a Victory?

The meeting between Secretary John Kerry and the head of Syrian opposition’s delegation in the transitional talks Dr. Riyad Hijab January 23 in Riyadh stirred a very negative reaction in many opposition circles. Kerry tried to convey a message that lowers opposition’s expectations and packs their goals into the practical frame of the talks drawn with the Russians. But the Secretary’s language threatened the prospects of constructive engagement by the groups which are proposed to participate in the talks.

Mr. Kerry had the difficult task of incorporating Russian-Assad positions and parameters within a plan that addresses as well the goals of the opposition. It is the usual intrinsic challenge of trying to reach a framework for negotiating an end to a tough conflict like the one in Syria. The result was a clear tilt to Moscow’s position. The question now is: Will these talks succeed?

Kerry’s message confused Hijab and the opposition groups alike. It is still not clear if this was done intentionally by the Secretary of State. He made it clear that there will be no preconditions set for the talks, not even a commitment to the departure of Assad at any point in the future. He also oscillated between describing Geneva-1 and Vienna communiques as “references” of the negotiations. And he used the term “unity government” side by side with the term “transitional government” which caused additional confusion.

Furthermore, Kerry’s proposed “confidence building” measures did not include exchange of prisoners or a halt of air raids or barrel bombs targeting civilian areas during talks. The secretary also said other opposition representatives, proposed by Moscow and considered by the rest of the opposition as too close to the Assad regime, will also be present in the talks. Faced with solid rejection by the opposition, those Assad-friendly groups would be labeled “consultants” to the UN envoy Staphan de Mistura and not a parallel opposition delegation.

After Turkey’s threats to end its cooperation in the process if the PKK linked Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union is invited, de Mistura decided to avoid inviting the group. The Russian selected “opposition” delegation will be stationed in Lausanne while the talks would be in Geneva. The letter of invitation failed to mention the Geneva-1 communique even after President Obama and Secretary Kerry hailed the Geneva-1 communique as the “foundation” of the solution since it was signed in 2012.  

The difference between the two communiques, the Geneva-1 and Vienna’s, is that the former emphasizes the importance of the transitional phase towards a solution while the later failed to mention distinctively this phase, and emphasized instead the need to fight terrorism. This applies as well to the UNSC Resolution 2254. This difference expressed a retreat from the previous position of insisting on excluding Assad’s effective governance during the transition phase. The Geneva-1 pointed out to “a transitional body that enjoys all executive powers”. Russia accepted the Geneva-1 communique before having its military “surge” in Syria. It de facto withdrew its support of the communique at the beginning of its military operations there.

This shift in emphasis gained a central place in the preparatory talks of the last few weeks, particularly with Kerry’s ambiguous language on the issue of Geneva-1. An opposition leader told MEB that basing the talks on the Vienna communique “will lead nowhere”. “The Vienna process gives prominence to the regional dynamics of the crisis and almost neglects its domestic Syria dimension. It presupposes the willingness of Assad to reach a deal with his opponents. This presupposition reflects that the two powers, Russia and the US, reached a joint understanding and took it to the region to include the regional powers. The question remains: Where would the Syrians fit here? I do not think that the Syrian crisis was merely a regional or global issue. No solution will be sustainable without a genuine and full inclusion of the opposition”, he said.

It is possible that Kerry overplayed his hand under the impact of freshly reached understanding with Lavrov and Saudi Arabia. It cannot be dismissed neither that the approach of the Secretary may work in starting a partial ceasefire. Yet, it is almost certain that this approach, and regardless of any argument that it was the only possible one, may not be sustainable and will not represent a real “solution” to the crisis.

The State Department rushed to contain the negative impact of Kerry-Hijab meeting. Michael Ratney, the administration’s point man for Syria, spent hours with opposition leaders on the phone following the meeting. Ratney tried to play down the points that caused concern among opposition groups all the while keeping the main lines of the US-Russian understanding intact. But Kerry’s warning that if the opposition refused to go to the talks, the negotiation will start anyway, was echoing loudly among the opposition groups and splitting them further.

The talks, if they start, which is still a big “if”, are slated to go on for 10 days. The “Syria Friends” group of nation will then meet in February 11 to evaluate the results of the talks and prepare the following round. The main focus of the first round will be the ceasefire and providing humanitarian aid to Syria’s civilians. Issues related to transition and the future of the country will not be discussed.

However, the invitation issued by de Mistura emphasized the need to form a transitional government to set a time table for the transitional process. This process would result in elections supervised by the UN and to form a non-sectarian, inclusive and credible government and start the process of writing a new Constitution” (No word about a transitional government with full powers). Theoretically, Assad would be able to run again in the elections. Kerry hinted to GCC foreign ministers during their meeting in Riyadh that Assad will not run “if everything goes according to plan”. Those were almost word by word what Putin told his interlocutors since last fall.  

The whole picture reflects a shift in the previous US approach to Syria. The illicit logic of that shift gives priority to counterterrorism over looking at Syria within the boundaries of its overall political conflict, which gave rise to terrorism. The nature of the new approach gives precedence to working with Russia and regional powers. In other words, Mr. Putin succeeded in causing a deeper effect than expected on the US approach to the Syrian conflict.

On the ground, however, it is difficult to see how this approach would achieve the required effects, either in fighting terrorism or in solving the political crisis, even if regional powers decided, under pressure, to stop their assistance to the opposition. The weak point of this “Russian” approach –now adopted now by Washington- lies in its crudeness.

For if a deal is reached on the bases of considering most opposition groups terrorists, as seems to be the essence of this approach, a wider war will be in our hands in a matter of few months. This will buy the Obama administration a cheap and superficial “accomplishment” for a short time, while failing to end the crisis on any sustainable way. The bottom line of this approach is exactly what Putin wanted all along. All what happened is that the US delivered its allies to the Kremlin.

The reason behind this conclusion stems from the fact that the approach has the following underlying aspects:

* It places the emphasis on immediate goals at the expense of the overall objectives. This is clear in giving priority to ceasefire and humanitarian aid, and in neglecting to frame these objectives in a process that promises the non-terrorist opposition leaders a possible solution which enables them to restrain their members.

* It is based on duel “references”, that of Geneva-1 which is acceptable by the mainstream opposition groups, and that of Vienna and the UN SCR 2254, which were promoted as the only acceptable references by the regime and the Russians, and which drop the need for Assad to leave or commit to departure after a successful transition.

* It enables terrorist groups like ISIL and Nusra to ask the others: What have you really achieved after five years of fighting? The question would turn into a major factor in pulling members of other groups, who saw their families and friends killed by the regime, to join those who refuse this kind of solution which effectively means that Assad won. In other words, there is nothing for the leaders of the invited groups to show their members in terms of justification for their participation in the talks.

* There are enough arms in Syria to make dependence on either regional powers or the US minimal.

* It cannot be certain that what Kerry hears wherever he goes is true or will indeed happen. Pressure may bring about a superficial consent while the real calculations may be carefully hidden and acted upon.

The process which has just started risks to end with a buildup of opposition forces which are immune to external powers, hence less controllable. Worse, it may result in expanding ISIL and Al Qaeda, both have an impressive inventory of weapons obtained from the Syrian and Iraqi regular armies.

But is there any chance it could work?

Yes. This is possible if the end of the road is shown to Syrians. If they are told clearly that they will have their country back without the dictatorship of Assad and his police state, free of terrorists and busy in a national healing process, where people exercise their human rights unpunished and where everyone is safe regardless of his sect or religion.

Washington has given up a lot of grounds in Syria to Moscow’s views. The initial position of Washington, that the Assad regime can never return Syria to stability, was the right one. There will be no stability in Syria for years to come if Russia’s crude and militarized “Grozny” approach carry the transitional process to where Mr. Putin wants it to go.

But any “success” of the current process will be short-lived. The way it is approached may, at best, bring some temporary results only for few months, if at all. The administration will take the opportunity to brag about its achievement in Syria, all the while denying that its solution is as superficial as is it reality. We feel we should alert all concerned parties to that early on. Dropping the internal Syrian dimension from the calculations of the peace effort will prove to be its Achill’s heel.

Assad won the diplomatic round after the unexpected change of mind of the Obama administration. But winning the war on the ground is a completely different matter. As the fight will re-erupt quickly, if it ever stopped, the real losers will be Syria’s civilians and ultimately the Assad regime. Is not it shameful enough that even stopping the barrel bombing of civilians was not considered part of the “human help” under the terms of the talks? No tyrant can remain in power by barrel bombs even if he is helped by the US and Russia together. Those kinds of crude bombs cannot tell who the children are and who the terrorists are. They cannot be claimed to select only the terrorists to kill.  

Secretary Kerry ended up following Putin’s Syria script. No surprise. As this administration proved over and over again that it does not have a strategy, it was to be expected that it will follow those who do.    

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