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Out of the Loop
A View from the Syria Sidelines

The decision-makers in Syria are meeting in Kazakhstan this week for a new series of peace talks brokered by Russia and Turkey. The United States, however, is notably absent, leaving Western diplomats anxiously watching from the sidelines and hoping to catch wind of the latest developments. FT offers a revealing snapshot of the scene in Astana:

Once they were the diplomatic elite, swooping into hushed meetings with the movers and shakers of Syrian peace talks. But in the new political reality of Russian-dominated diplomacy in Syria, western envoys found themselves relegated with journalists to the plaid-carpeted Irish Pub of a hotel in Kazakhstan.

“We’re like party crashers . . . And we’re completely out of the loop,” one joked, as he and other officials traded information gleaned from rebels or the UN envoy, who was invited by Russia and Turkey, the new power brokers of Syria’s near six-year conflict. […]

“I’m not feeling so sorry for the US or the west losing its role. They never really pushed for us,” grumbled one opposition delegate.

“Look where they are now — literally in a corner. They’re screwed,” he said, as pro-government journalists eyed him from under a cloud of cigarette smoke.

It would be hard to stage a more telling portrait of the Obama Administration’s legacy of strategic irrelevance in Syria. After years of indulging John Kerry with futile peace talks, Russia has finally dispensed with the charade and cut the United States completely out of the picture. And to judge by the scene described in Astana, even the opposition players who are nominally aligned with Washington are not itching for the U.S. to rejoin the negotiating table.

Apart from scrapping trade deals, Team Trump has yet to show much of its hand on foreign policy. Given the President’s overwhelming focus on fighting Islamist terrorism above all else on the campaign trail, one might surmise that he’s not too bothered to have the Russians, Turks, and Iranians sort out the shape of Syria going forward, with the United States in no way engaged.

Still, especially in the Middle East, clout matters, and setting the terms of whatever arrangement for a country like Syria gains you a lot in the neighborhood. Effectively rooting out ISIS will require more than a reliance on spy satellites and smart bombs; allies will be necessary. A forceful, determined re-engagement with the region could reverse a lot of the reputational hits the United States has sustained over the last six or so years. Is Trump up for it, though?

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  • WigWag

    To be fair, the Russians did invite Trump to send a high level representative to the meeting and he demurred.

    • Curious Mayhem

      At this point, it would be a waste of what little is left of American political capital, almost totally squandered by Obama. Trump would gain nothing by sending someone, except to look stupid.

      Obama undermined American foreign policy and the postwar security order all over the world, but nowhere more so than in the Middle East. The interesting and disturbing thing is that Trump, unlike say McCain or Romney, has no interest in restoring that order. He just wants it to go away. Thanks to Obama’s disastrous legacy and Trump’s lack of interest in reversing it, we are probably seeing the emergence of a post-postwar order, poorer, less free, and less safe.

  • Disappeared4x

    WaPo 01 21 2017: “The Trump administration will not send a delegation to next week’s Syrian peace talks, sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran, because of the “immediate demands of the transition,” the State Department said Saturday.

    Russia’s ambassador to the United States had personally invited President Trump’s national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, to the
    meeting, scheduled to begin Monday in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. The Obama administration was not invited.

    “The United States is committed to a political resolution to the Syrian crisis through a Syrian-owned process, which can bring about a more representative, peaceful, and united Syria,” acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement. It said that the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan would attend as an observer.

    The invitation comes as the new administration is still formulating its policies toward a variety of issues, including the Syrian war,
    Russia and Iran, although Trump has promised changes from his predecessor. Secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson has not been confirmed by the Senate, and no other senior diplomatic appointments have been finalized.

    “Given our presidential inauguration and the immediate demands of the transition, a delegation from Washington will not be attending,”Toner’s statement said. …”

  • Beauceron

    Why would we take ownership, or even partial ownership, of this problem at this late stage in the game? Any real or imagined US failures in Syria is Obama’s cross to bear.

    I swear, a lot of diplomats just want to be seen having a seat at the table. It inflates their sense of importance and allows them to strut around. Syria is Russia’s client state. Turkey has gone, well, I suppose according to the Left he’s not even close to the fascist dictator Trump is after less than three days in office, but still…Turkey isn’t a partner we should put too much reliance on.

    In fact, on Obama’s last day in office he ordered the bombing of an al-Qaeda camp in Syria that had American vetted rebels embedded with the al Qaeda group. One of the leaders reported killed is a guy we supplied with TOW missiles.

    I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all that we don’t have a seat at that table.

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