Breaking the Syrian Stalemate
Two years after the beginning of the Syrian insurgency, three facts are clear: The rebels are unable to bring down the government of President Bashar al-Assad, foreign political support and military supplies notwithstanding; Bashar's forces are unable to defeat the rebels and reestablish control over the entire country; and continued third-party advocacy of either one of those two unattainable objectives can only prolong Syria's agony.
The U.S.-sponsored influx of arms and jihadi volunteers, irresponsible in design and self-defeating in consequences, has greatly aggravated the situation. If the term "international community" has any meaning at all, other than the arbitrary will of the hegemon, it is to serve the goals of all social life: to limit violence resulting in death and bodily harm. U.S. Syrian policy has done the opposite thus far. It is up to the new national security team to change the course. A new policy is needed, not only to stop the bloodshed and preserve a modicum of regional stability, but also—primarily, in fact—to serve the American interest in a turbulent part of the world from which this country should finally start disengaging.
Secretary of State John Kerry, on his first overseas trip since taking office, outlined what appeared to be a potentially more nuanced Syria policy in his remarks in Paris last week. Non-lethal supplies to the rebels would be stepped up, he announced, but the customary Hillary Clinton-era demand for Bashar al-Assad’s speedy departure was absent. He "has to go," but we are not told when. According to one usually well-informed Israeli source, the Obama Administration has finally realized that the only way to contain Jihadist forces and retain a degree of American control over the rebels was to catch a ride on Russian President Vladimir Putin plans for Syria—even through they envisage Bashar staying in power at least until next year:
Those plans hinge primarily on establishing armistice lines dividing the country into separate sectors and determining in advance which will be controlled by rebel factions and which by Assad loyalists. This is the first practical basis to be put forward for an accord to end the two-year old civil war between Assad and the Syrian opposition and it is designed to go forward under joint Russian-American oversight.
The teamwork between Washington and Moscow in pursuit of this plan is supposedly "close and detailed." The new American policy for Syria is said to be based on Washington’s recognition of the reality on the ground and the necessity of working with Moscow—which entails acceptance of Assad’s rule—in order to retain some influence within the Syrian rebel camp. Kerry seems to understand that a political solution supported by all five UNSC permanent members is the only way forward. Of course he is well aware that there will be no Security Council resolution that can be misused as a quasi-mandate for NATO or some ad-hoc "coalition of the willing" to stage an outright military intervention in Syria—pace Libya in 2011—and that a realistic scenario demands retreat from Clinton’s preordained outcomes.
Similar signals are coming from other well connected sources. "Those looking for positive statements on the negotiated outcome Kerry prefers have not been disappointed," according to Al-Monitor: "Encouraging comments on diplomatic engagement have been heard from the protagonists themselves." On the Syrian side, they include Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and notably the head of the ‘legitimate’ opposition Moaz al-Khatib:
The differences separating former top members of the ruling elite, now re-branded as opposition men like Khatib, Manaf Tlas and former prime minister Riyad Habib, and from those still in their chairs — Muallem and Foreign Minister Farouk as-Shar'a—seem bridgeable. Assad himself even spoke of returning to his medical practice after (losing) an election in 2014.
Key persons on both sides of the divide apparently agree that the Syrian state and its institutions must be preserved, and that a ceasefire and dialogue on a managed transition to democratic elections provide the path to peace. If the United States is to have a role, however, "Kerry must convince the opposition and their allies in Turkey and the Gulf that dialogue is the key to regime change, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov must convince Assad that it is not."
This is a tall order that requires skill and flexibility that Hillary Clinton so patently lacked.
"In the face of such murder and threat of instability," Kerry said on the eve of the opposition meeting in Rome last week, "our policy cannot stay static as the weeks go by." Interesting, and potentially promising. American efforts will be calibrated in order to "change the calculation on the ground for President Assad" in favor of a political solution. The non-lethal aid package for the opposition, in this context, becomes a stop-gap measure that may have been designed to fend off neoconservative and liberal-interventionist accusations of yet another "sellout."
On the other hand, rather than encourage a negotiated outcome—which Kerry seems to support—the latest aid package for the rebels (likely intended as his diplomatic fig-leaf for the interim period) may encourage the hopes of a military victory among radical Islamists who provide the fighting backbone of the rebellion. It is a grim fact that the influx of supplies from abroad into Syria has escalated the conflict to its disastrous current point. As we now know, Western capitals have provided logistics, coordination, political support, and non-lethal aid to the rebels, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have delivered them weapons and money, while Turkey has offered facilities for NATO training as well as safe havens for rebel attacks inside Syria. This is not a civil war between pro-democracy forces and a brutal regime fighting its own people, this is yet another pro-jihadist intervention paid in large part by the American taxpayer.
If Kerry is serious about looking for a solution, he should disregard neoconservative attacks that are certain to follow. That camp’s convoluted thinking is explicitly displayed in "Two Cheers for Syrian Islamists," published by Foreign Policy magazine last August: "So the rebels aren’t secular Jeffersonians. As far as America is concerned, it doesn’t much matter… Islamists—many of them hardened by years of fighting U.S. forces in Iraq—are simply more effective fighters than their secular counterparts."
"It doesn’t much matter…" Cheering seasoned killers of American soldiers in Iraq as American allies in Syria is sick, outrageous, and treasonous—but that has always been the nature of the unpatriotic interventionist beast.