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White House Looking for Syrian Exit

Although the Obama Administration has had some surprising foreign policy successes, Obama’s Syria policy has been a case study in incoherence and mismangament. After remaining relatively quiet in the early stages of the crisis, Obama escalated his rhetoric to ridiculous levels, calling for regime change in Syria and demanding that that Assad step down, yet refusing to back his words with action and thus leaving himself vulnerable to Russian exploitation of the gap between the administration’s rhetoric and its will.

Now it looks as if the the administration may be changing its plans. The FT reports that, following the G-20 meeting, the UK, Britain, and Russia may push for multiparty talks on the future of Syria in which some form of negotiated settlement would be on the table. As with all things involving Putin, however, there will likely be some difficulties:

London expects Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, to press for a conference in Geneva in the next few weeks, to be chaired by Kofi Annan, international envoy to Syria. However, British officials admit this is an “optimistic” scenario.

The proposed talks could founder on a number of points, including Russian demands that Iran be included. “The Russians argue the Iranians should be invited,” said a British official. “As far as we are concerned, the answer is no. We have no illusions—it could capsize just on whether Iran is invited or not, but it is worth a try.”

After nearly a year, it looks like the White House and the UK are thinking about finally cutting off the the threats to haul Assad before the ICC and dismounting from their moral high horses. A nice villa on the Riviera and lakes of money in Swiss banks might be in his future, if he’ll just agree to step down.

The White House may at last be staring into the abyss at the heart of its Syria policy: Assad isn’t going to step down because our UN ambassador recites a long list of moralistic talking points. The Oval Office isn’t interested in a humanitarian war in Syria, and it worries that arming the rebels could easily, easily end in massacres of Alawites or Christians by U.S. supplied weapons. This means it doesn’t have a lot of options that get Assad out of power anytime soon and is looking for a negotiated transfer and some sort of credible way out of the crisis.

It’s not at all clear that it will get one. Assad has solidified his base, and growing fear among Syria’s minorities of what might come if the current regime falls have strengthened him considerably. Russia, which has seen an opportunity to torture an Obama administration which it deeply dislikes, is currently insisting that Iran be one of the outside powers involved in any talks on a political solution in Syria.

That’s pretty much unthinkable from Washington’s point of view, but the more desperate the White House looks, the higher the price Russia will likely charge to get us out of this mess. And every day the Magnitsky Bill advances through Congress, Russia has that much more reason to want to embarrass and obstruct the U.S.

Things can always take a turn for the better in Syria (even in the Middle East things sometimes go better than expected), but it looks now as if the U.S. is going to pay a significant price for the incoherence of our Syria policy.

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  • Pedro Marquez

    The only “political solution” for Syria would be if high-ranking generals defect to the opposition, causing the army to collapse and the entire Assad clan to seek exile. Given that the Assads are the core of the regime, this would be regime change by any other name. In the best-case scenario, the remaining Alawite minority would receive assurances of protection under the new regime. The worst-case scenario would see massacres of Alawites by Sunnis. (My hunch is that the fear of the latter scenario is one reason Western governments have not been more forthcoming in assisting the rebels).

    Obama sees no good options, so he’s trying to make it seem like he’s doing someone while playing for time and hoping the regime will collapse without the need for direct U.S. involvement. It’s not an ideal policy but it is understandable given the political considerations.

    The problem is the Administration’s ludicrous insistence that the road to peace goes through Moscow. Unless the Russians are working out a secret deal with the rebels to keep their ships stationed in Tartous in a post-Assad Syria, there is no rational reason for Putin to faciliate Assad’s exit. Russia may not be able to save Assad, but they can inflate the perception of Russian influence while damaging American credibility. And Obama is playing into their hands.

  • thibaud

    Via Meadia, June 3: “Putin and his Orthodox allies … are resisting the West in Syria because they believe that the western commitment to Syria’s minorities is pathetically weak.”

    Via Meadia, June 22: “Russia … has seen an opportunity to torture an Obama administration which it deeply dislikes”

    How very confusing.

    Thank goodness VM is here to inform us that, whatever happens with regard to Syria or whatever is motivating Russian policy – VM seems to change its story on the latter with every new post – the Obama Administration’s incompetence is to blame. Yup.

  • Ed Snyder

    As someone said on another blog, if the Iranians get physically involved–as in sending in actual RG members or the like–then our kinetic response should be to kill as many of them as possible while they’re all in one spot.

    But if not? My call–and I can’t imagine how much worse it would be than what the amateurs in charge are planning (or not)–would be to build a steel cage around the entire place and let as many of them kill each other as possible. And if the Russians send weapons, I say let’s make sure they get as evenly distributed as possible.

  • Stephen

    And just when you thought you’d seen it all…Syria goes and shoots down a Turkish F4? I don’t think the administration is going to be rid of this any time soon if that report in the UK Telegraph is correct.

  • Jim.

    @thibaud –

    How fortunate we are to have you here to illuminate the Obama administration’s deft handling of this situation!

    Also, if you could explain why Putin’s efforts to embarass the Obama administrations’s efforts in Syria are unrelated to the administration’s pathetic weakness in defending Syrian minorities, that would help us understand how Mead is being incoherent here.

  • The Reticulator

    “How very confusing.”

    Complicated, yes, but confusing? Maybe to those who can see the world only in stark black and white, with no shades of gray.

  • thibaud

    Neither Putin nor Russia is benefiting from the Syrian mess. Putin is playing the same kinds of tricks he played in 2002, when a previous US administration was dealing with yet another one of the middle east’s endless parade of no-win nightmare situations.

    It was annoying and repulsive when certain critics sneered at W’s efforts to make the best of a bad deal in 2002, and it’s no less repulsive when people use the current mess as an excuse to take pot shots at the current administration.

    Just as with Saddam’s Iraq, Assad’s Syria today presents no good options for us.

    Mead has no idea what a good option would look like, or even how, exactly, the Obama admin’s actions in particular have made things in Syria worse than they otherwise would have been. He’s just using Putin as a cat’s paw. Not a pretty sight.

  • Mike

    Ridiculous levels of rhetoric? How about were going into Iraq to assassinate Sadam? And there was no legitimate reason to be there. So why not some tough talk on Syria? It’s a serious situation.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “Although the Obama Administration has had some surprising foreign policy successes”

    Funny, I can’t think of a single one that wasn’t just the continuation of a Bush foreign policy, or is being driven by foreign nations looking to counterbalance Chinese belligerence. Everything Obama does results in failure, he Kow Tows to our Enemies, and insults our Allies (Polish Death camps), he leaks secrets (Flame and Stuxnet virus, doctor in Pakistan doing 33 years), and boasts of strength and courage that isn’t his (“any president would have made that call” Clinton on the Osama killing).

    I agree with @Jim about @thibaud I have just been skipping over his posts when I run into them as they never contain any factual evidence to back up his leftist statements and insults.

  • Jim.


    The Arab Spring has resulted in the possibility that minorities, particularly Christian minorities, could be targeted for persecution and ethnic cleansing, up to and including genocide. This has happened before to Christian minorities, both in Turkey (during WWI and between the world wars) and more recently in Iraq.

    Putin’s moves, whatever else can be said about them, put him in a position to do something about this.

    Obama’s, on the other hand, do not.

    Perhaps we have nothing but “bad options”. It is still worth criticizing the Obama administration for being ineffectual when it comes to preventing the worst outcome — another Holocaust.

    Thibaud, you have given yourself no good options here. Are you simply blinded by partisanship to the grave possibilities here? Based on your comments about faithful Christians in the past, are we to conclude that you don’t care if Christians get slaughtered? Could we go farther, and conclude that along with the anti-Semities in this world, there exist anti-Christians who wouldn’t mind seeing (or would be pleased to see) Christians and Christianity abolished by violent means — and that you’re one of them?

    Here’s a way out, thibaud. Here’s some middle ground. The world could take this opportunity to use international pressure (even military pressure) to shatter Islam’s laws on apostasy and “dhimmitude”, rendering them a dead letter on pain of punitive military strikes. That would be good for anti-religious types like you, good for human rights advocates, good for those of us who believe in an open-door policy for Christian missionaries in the Middle East.

    Common ground here, thibaud. How about it?

  • thibaud

    “Based on your comments about faithful Christians in the past, are we to conclude that you don’t care if Christians get slaughtered?”

    No. You’d be 1) stupid to do so, and 2) guilty of bad faith (as it were).

    “Could we go farther, and conclude that along with the anti-Semities in this world, there exist anti-Christians who wouldn’t mind seeing (or would be pleased to see) Christians and Christianity abolished by violent means — and that you’re one of them?”

    There are haters and nuts of every stripe in this vale of tears. But it has zero relevance to this discussion.

    Anyone who sees the vicious, murderous $40 billion thief in the Kremlin as a champion of the Prince of Peace is just a tool.

    Y’all are being played here, again.

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