Amid an outcry among allies, the United States sought to walk back Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments over the weekend that Bashar al-Assad would be included in any negotiations over Syria’s final status. Reuters:
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that while the United States accepted the need for representatives of Assad’s government to participate in any negotiations, “it would not be and would never be – and it wasn’t what Secretary Kerry was intending to imply – that that would be Assad himself.”“We continue to believe … that there’s no future for Assad in Syria,” Psaki told reporters.
Visiting Ankara, U.S. envoy Gen. John Allen reiterated the point after meeting with an irate Turkish foreign minister:
“General Allen reiterated that the United States’ position on Assad has not changed,” the U.S. embassy in Ankara said in a statement after Allen, the special envoy responsible for building the anti-Islamic State coalition, held talks in Ankara.“The United States believes that he has lost all legitimacy to govern, that conditions in Syriaunder his rule have led to the rise of ISIL (Islamic State) and other terrorist groups, and that we continue to seek a negotiated political outcome to the Syrian conflict that does not in the end include Assad.”
Meanwhile, Syrian rebels provided video evidence that the Assad regime had once again used chemical weapons on civilians. Six people, all from the same family, succumbed to symptoms of the alleged chlorine gas attack yesterday. Chlorine gas is outside the scope of the disarmament agreement which Obama administration officials like to trumpet as a policy success in Syria, but its use as a weapon is in contravention of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Syria is a party. Syrian rebels were outraged, directly linking the attack by an ’emboldened’ Assad to Kerry’s words.The BBC has a good analysis pointing to a key factor behind Kerry’s statement on Assad: the Obama Administration is worried that even if ISIS is pushed out of Iraq it might still manage to take Damascus. Presumably, the Administration thinks, Assad has come to see things this way too, and is perhaps now ready to take a seat at the table.Assad himself dismissed Kerry’s remarks, so it seems the Administration’s read was off. But, analysts tell the BBC, the problem goes deeper than just Assad:
“A necessary condition of Assad’s survival was the transformation of his military into an anti-insurgency force and in parallel the ‘militia-fication’ of the regime,” says Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Assuming he wants to negotiate, which he does not, Assad today has politically a smaller margin of manoeuvre than earlier because he owes his survival to an array of militias whose interests are not fully aligned with his,” he added.A lot of the power also rests with Tehran, his key backer. […]Mr Abdul Salam, the activist, warned that while many rebels felt they could still work with the army, dynamics on the ground were changing. “Syrian government forces will be seen as an occupying force with mercenaries and Iranian fighters, and it will become difficult to have reconciliation efforts on the ground between the fighters,” he said.
In other words, Assad may be both less willing and less able to negotiate than many think. And even an Allawite entity without Assad at its head might not be an acceptable negotiating partner for many Syrians. Bloodshed could continue for a while yet.Garbled messaging that alienates allies, a failure to prevent a murderous regime from using chemical weapons against civilians, a scramble to preserve a thoroughly compromised proxy of Iran—this, alas, is what a thoroughly muddled Middle East policy looks like.