It was hardly a surprise when last week’s much-anticipated Geneva II conference bringing representatives of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime together with opposition members came up empty. Nor was it surprising that, as recent press reports show, the administration’s plan to rid Assad of his chemical weapons has come up way short—to date, Syria has shipped out only 5 percent of its unconventional arsenal. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough defended the Russian-led chemicals weapons initiative, saying “it’s not falling apart, but we would like to see it proceed much more quickly than it is.”
But it is falling apart. The Russians designed the deal, and lured Obama into it, for no other purpose than to protect their Syrian client and use the White House to launder his reputation by making him an American partner in dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. Assad will turn in his chemical weapons slowly—and of course never in their entirety. Israeli reports show that Assad is stockpiling chemical weapons in "the heartland of his Alawite sect" "as an insurance policy in case [Syria] is eventually partitioned."
The administration’s Syria policy is in such bad shape that it seems even cabinet officials are talking out of school. Monday, three different journalists reported that John Kerry told an audience at a security conference in Munich that the White House’s Syria policy was failing. As Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote, Kerry’s “briefing was meant to be private, but the Senate’s two most prominent Syria hawks, Republicans John McCain—the leader of the U.S. delegation to the security conference—and Lindsey Graham provided a readout of the meeting to three journalists who flew with them on a delegation plane back to Washington: Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of the Washington Post, Josh Rogin, the Daily Beast's national security reporter,” and Goldberg himself.
According to Rogin, Kerry’s complaint is multifold. Kerry notes that the Assad regime “is failing to uphold its promise to give up its chemical weapons according to schedule.” Also Kerry said that “the Russians are not being helpful in solving the Syrian civil war; and that the Geneva 2 peace talks that he helped organize are not succeeding.” According to all three articles, Kerry now wants to arm the Syrian rebels.
The three reports argue that the takeaway from Kerry’s private briefing is vastly different from the message that the rest of the administration is putting out, and the secretary of state wants new options. However, Kerry’s spokeswoman Jen Psaki said McCain and Graham got it wrong. “This is a case of members projecting what they want to hear and not stating the accurate facts of what was discussed," said Psaki. "It’s no secret that some members of Congress support this approach, but at no point during the meeting did Secretary Kerry raise lethal assistance for the opposition."
So who’s right? Psaki, or McCain and Graham?
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.
Goldberg reported Graham saying that Kerry “openly talked about forming a coalition against al-Qaeda because it’s a direct threat.” Okay, but a coalition with whom? Right—the regime and its allies who look at Syria the same way the White House does. As Assad has been saying for a decade now, the Americans have the same enemy he does—al Qaeda. Or, in the words of President Hassan Rouhani, the big problem in Syria right now is “terrorism”—i.e., of the Sunni variety, like al Qaeda, and not their own, like Hezbollah. They’d all be happy to team up with the White House—and not just against al Qaeda but all the rebels, in order to put down the uprising once and for all.
As Tony Badran, a Middle East expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies wrote last week, the clear and consistent message coming out of the administration and its surrogates in the media and policy establishment is that the United States should redefine its objectives and work with the Assad regime against “jihadi extremism.”
That’s all that Kerry was doing at the Munich conference, not criticizing his own White House, but articulating the administration’s de facto policy of more than two years—leave the Iranian axis alone to focus on al Qaeda. Further, he was testing the waters with talking points that administration officials have to date resisted putting forth publicly and officially—maybe we should team up with the Assad regime to target al Qaeda. The White House’s goal now is to rehabilitate Assad. With no interest in helping to topple him, the administration needs to sell him as the “devil we know,” and one who can provide valuable assistance in keeping al Qaeda from attacking America. In short, Kerry’s not a maverick, but a rodeo clown the White House sent out to do some very ugly work.
Who knows? Maybe McCain and Graham, the Senate’s two most prominent critics of Obama’s Syria policy, understood the White House’s play and relayed exactly what their former Senate colleague said but just changed the context somewhat—hey, Kerry thinks Obama is wrong and we need to arm the rebels. Yes, right, to fight al Qaeda—but you know the fog of war. If somehow that message fails to get transmitted to Free Syrian Army units on the ground and they wind up toppling Assad, well, wouldn’t that be a shame.
The problem is that the interim agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons program has given the administration incentive to protect Iran’s stake in Syria.