The U.S. botched the Syria talks before they even began


Steven Heydemann writes: When the latest negotiations to end Syria’s long, bloody conflict began on Friday, Jan. 29 — the first round of U.N.-sponsored talks in two years — one party was conspicuous by its absence. As diplomats and representatives of the Assad regime gathered in Geneva, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the main opposition umbrella group, refused to attend unless airstrikes and city sieges stopped — conditions that were not met. Over the weekend, the HNC traveled to Geneva, but the status of the talks remained uncertain. Even as this standoff all but derailed the meeting, however, the Obama administration has been steadfast in its determination that the Geneva talks proceed. Expressing cautious optimism in the months leading up to the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the talks as the best chance to “chart a course out of hell.”

Success in Geneva is unlikely, however — but not because of opposition intransigence. Rather, the Obama administration itself has increased the odds of failure. Its recent tilt toward Russia’s position on the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — accepting that he might have a role in a future political transition — has undermined prospects for success, damaged U.S. credibility with the opposition, and further eroded America’s leverage in the Middle East. This shift in U.S. policy has almost certainly made a negotiated settlement in Geneva less likely. Even worse, it could well spur the continued escalation of the Syrian conflict.

It is not too late for the administration to change course, but the odds that it will do so are slim. President Barack Obama has verged on the self-righteous in defending his approach to the brutal war that has battered Syria for nearly five years, destabilized the Middle East, and driven waves of refugees into Europe. He has made clear that he remains determined to take only those measures necessary to “contain” the conflict, but nothing more. Even though the evidence that no aspect of the Syrian conflict has been contained is overwhelming, Obama has continually brushed aside criticism that he has not been sufficiently assertive, characterizing the options he’s been offered as “mumbo jumbo.” Senior White House officials have complained that proposals to expand U.S. involvement recommend a course of action but do not take into account what happens next.

If we take the U.S. president’s claims about the rigor of his policy process seriously, what are we to make of the pivot, led by Kerry, to align with Russia in rejecting regime change — a goal the administration once embraced? Or of the administration’s flip-flop in accepting the possibility that Assad, who is complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity, and is currently starving besieged civilians in Madaya, might remain in power in Syria indefinitely? These concessions to Russia violate a core Obama principle: “Don’t do stupid shit.” Moreover, they reflect the administration’s own failure to think through what happens next, or how shifts in policy would help the United States to achieve its objectives. [Continue reading…]

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