The Risks in Negotiating With Syria’s Assad

Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments Sunday that the Obama administration is considering negotiating with the Assad regime to achieve a political settlement in Syria is less stunning news than an acknowledgement that U.S. policy toward Syria has failed. 

Coming hours before Secretary Kerry meets again with Iranian nuclear negotiators, this will feed the perception that Washington recognizes that Iran–Syria’s key patron–is the region’s preeminent power. 

“Assad must go” was a never a serious U.S. policy. President Barack Obama and Secretary Kerry may have said that, but they had neither the will nor the capacity to make good on it. The administration’s actions—including not moving to enforce President Obama’s “red line” at the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and brokering a deal with the Russians to dispose of Syrian chemical weapons—showed that Washington accepted that Bashar al-Assad was not only part of the problem in Syria but might also be part of the solution. 

The rise of Islamic State all but cemented Mr. Assad’s presidency. ISIS extremists’ march into Mosul, Iraq, last summer and their consolidation of power in northern Syria forced the Obama administration to prioritize. Mr. Assad was strengthening ISIS by killing Sunnis in Syria. But ISIS’s anti-American agenda, with its savage beheadings, led the administration to see Mr. Assad as the lesser of two evils. The other option was an ISIS Caliphate established in Damascus. The U.S. was training Syrian rebels to fight the regime. But this could never be accomplished fast or effectively enough to do serious damage. President Obama long resisted militarizing the U.S. role in Syria. When he finally did so last year, the U.S. did not target Mr. Assad but ISIS with airstrikes. 

The two United Nations-backed meetings in Geneva in early 2014 to end Syria’s civil war originally sought to lay the foundation for a political settlement that would pressure Mr. Assad to leave. Russia held a third meeting in Moscow in January 2015. On Sunday, while Secretary Kerry did talk about pressure, he was vague about the final outcome in Syria. Should Moscow and Tehran, Mr. Assad’s two key backers, desert him, his ouster might be possible. But that seems a distant possibility. If anything, Mr. Kerry’s comments will further demoralize the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition; anger Gulf Arabs, who believe that Washington is appeasing Tehran in an effort to conclude a nuclear agreement; and delight Iranians–who may well see Mr. Kerry’s statement as a signal that Washington wants to curry favor at this sensitive moment in the nuclear talks. 

It is ironic that Secretary Kerry, initially one of the Obama administration’s hawks on getting rid of Mr. Assad, may well be charged with a renewed effort to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis that keeps Mr. Assad in power. Secretary Kerry is focused on achieving perhaps the administration’s most important goal in the Middle East: an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. There’s little doubt that one reason President Obama hesitated to launch a military campaign to rid Syria of Mr. Assad was his concern that the U.S. might get into an open-ended military conflict that involved Iranian proxies or Revolutionary Guard units supporting Mr. Assad. 

Whatever U.S. intentions, the widely shared perception in the Middle East is that Washington is playing an Iran card at the expense of Sunni Arab interests. To a conspiracy-minded region, the evidence includes Washington prioritizing a nuclear deal with a dangerous Iran; supporting a Shiite government in Baghdad; and, now, negotiating with Mr. Assad’s Alawite regime. Sadly, this will feed the ISIS-led narrative that the United States has thrown in its lot with the Shiites. 

If Russia and Iran would support a transition in Syria that forces Mr. Assad, his family, and the regime’s mafia from power; that includes Alawites, Sunnis, Christians, and Kurds in the new Syria; and that doesn’t open the door to further ISIS gains, the outcome could be fine. But if that doesn’t happen, and the U.S. comes to terms with Mr. Assad, then Washington will have achieved a horrible trifecta: legitimizing a mass murderer, feeding ISIS propaganda, and alienating its own Sunni allies. 

The Wall Street Journal 

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