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.