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Kerry Talks Out of School

The White House’s Syria policy is so bad that even the secretary of state is against it—or is he?

3:10 PM, Feb 4, 2014 • By LEE SMITH
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Certainly Kerry’s recent history, as Goldberg argues, shows him being more “forward leaning” than the president. As Hiatt notes, “more than a year ago Kerry openly advocated changing the dynamics in Syria so that dictator Bashar al-Assad would have an incentive to negotiate. But the White House vetoed any serious training or arming of the rebels.” Kerry has frequently argued for military action against Assad—like setting up safe zones, airstrikes, and arming the rebels to fight Assad. But that’s not what Kerry’s saying this time out, or at least not according to what McCain and Graham told the three reporters. Kerry wants to arm the rebels to fight al Qaeda, a position that doesn’t distinguish him from the president and the rest of the administration, but rather puts him squarely on their side.

For almost two years now, the White House has been contending that al Qaeda, not Assad or Hezbollah or their senior partner Iran, is the major problem in Syria. As outgoing deputy director of the CIA Michael Morrell told the Wall Street Journal in August, the U.S. intelligence community believes that al Qaeda in Syria constitutes the greatest threat to U.S. national security. The concern, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper explained in his Senate testimony last week, is that Syria “is becoming a center of radical extremism” and at least one al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, has “aspirations for attacks on the homeland.” In other words, as Hiatt explained in his report of the McCain and Graham readout, the worry is that “safe havens in Syria . . . could play the same role that Afghan refuges offered al-Qaeda before 9/11.”

Perhaps, but it’s not clear how. The two situations are very different. Afghanistan is an ungovernable rock where Osama bin Laden and colleagues were guests of the Taliban and free to do as they pleased—hunt, train falcons, play soccer, and plot against America. Syria however is a broken nation-state that is now the locus of a civil war where Jabhat al-Nusra is fighting both Assad’s allied forces and the other major al Qaeda affiliate, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, while sometimes skirmishing with Kurdish militias. Maybe Nusra wants to attack the United States but they have limited time and opportunity to do so. Moreover, it’s not clear how they’d manage it—or what security service on Syria’s borders wants to be left holding the bag when the United States wants to know how Nusra fighters were allowed safe transit through their territory? Syria is not Afghanistan.

The counter-terrorism rationale for prioritizing al Qaeda over Iran, a state sponsor of terror, is arguable. The strategic reasons are even more difficult to fathom. One is a collection of non-state actors that dreams of restoring a caliphate, and the other is a nation-state marching toward a nuclear weapons program that is in the process of fulfilling its expansionist ambitions by spreading its tentacles from Baghdad to Beirut and is turning Syria into an IRGC forward operating base on the Mediterranean coast.

However, the political rationale for the White House’s focus on al Qaeda rather than the Iranian axis is simple.

First, the administration has given up on toppling Assad. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, “senior administration officials now privately talk about Mr. Assad’s staying for the foreseeable future and voice regret about the decision, in August 2011, to call for him to step aside.”

Second, it seems Obama never really wanted to do much to force Assad to step aside. Just as he now doesn’t want another round of sanctions on Iran, and just as he disdained supporting the Iranian opposition in June 2009, he’s held off backing the Syrian rebels for the same reason—he doesn’t want to get the regime in Tehran angry and risk driving them from the negotiating table. Now with the Joint Plan of Action in place, the administration has even more reason not to ruffle Iranian regime feathers. If anything, the White House wants to establish more points of mutual interest and Syria’s a good place to do it.

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