Kerry’s Bailey bridge over troubled Syrian waters

M.K. Bhadrakumar December 17, 2015 9:27 AM (UTC+8)
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The United States Secretary of State John Kerry held talks with the Russian leadership in Moscow regarding the Syrian conflict. There has been an enormous rush to judgment on the outcome of these talks. At its most extreme is the assessment that Washington now accepts the Russian stance on the role of President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria’s future.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) welcomes US Secretary of State John Kerry at the Kremlin on Dec. 15
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) welcomes US Secretary of State John Kerry at Kremlin on Dec. 15

Kerry’s remarks to the media after the talks in Moscow have been interpreted as crystallizing the incremental evolution of the policy of the Obama administration on Assad. The Associated Press succinctly traced the evolution as follows:

“President Barack Obama first called on Assad to leave power in the summer of 2011, with “Assad must go,” being a consistent rallying cry. Later, American officials allowed that he wouldn’t have to resign on “Day One” of a transition. Now, Assad’s stay could be indefinite. Russia, by contrast, has remained consistent in its view that no foreign government could demand Assad’s departure and that Syrians would have to negotiate matters of leadership among themselves”.

The missing word, of course, is ‘capitulation’ on the part of President Obama. However, looking at the fine print of what Kerry said in Moscow, what emerges is a nuanced diplomatic stance by the US rather than the one-dimensional interpretation that all but puts the US and Russia (and Iran) on the same page as secret collaborators navigating the Syrian peace process.

What did Kerry say? The following excerpts are relevant here:

  • United States and our partners are not seeking so-called ‘regime change’ (in Syria)… What we have said is that we don’t believe that Assad has the ability to be able to lead the future Syria, but we focused today not on our differences about what can or can’t be done immediately about Assad; we focused on a process – on the political process whereby Syrians will be making decisions for the future of Syria. But we do believe that nobody should be forced to choose between a dictator and being plagued by terrorists. Our challenge lies in creating the conditions on which an alternative can emerge.
  • (As regards the stance on Assad taken by the opposition groups that met in Riyadh last week), that is not the position of the International Syria Support Group. It is not the basis of the Geneva communiqué; it is not the basis of the UN resolution. And we are assured by the members of the International Syria Support Group, who were attending that meeting (in Riyadh), helping with that meeting and hosting that meeting, that (Assad should go right at the outset of the transition process) is not, in fact, the starting position, because it’s a non-starting position, obviously.

What Kerry said can be summarized this way: A) Washington prioritizes the commencement of the political process in January and will not allow it to be made hostage to reaching a consensus with Russia (and Iran) regarding Assad’s role. B) The choice before the Syrian people should not be Assad and Daesh (which is the case today); the US hopes to create conditions during the transition where a third alternative “can emerge”. C) Neither the International Syria Support Group nor the UN is demanding that Assad should step down at the outset of the transition, which, therefore, is a non-issue.

Fundamentally, call it ‘regime change’ or by any other name, the US stance has not changed insofar as it still cannot visualize that Assad can hope to lead a united Syria.

What Kerry has attempted during the Moscow visit is a reconciliation with Russia that enables the holding of the next meeting of the International Syria Support Group on Friday in New York where the focus is on kick-starting the intra-Syrian talks in January, which in turn is dependent on the drawing up of the list of terrorist vs. legitimate opposition forces and the finalization of the negotiating teams.

The point is, while on the one hand the Russian military intervention in Syria has changed the rules of the game, on the other hand, the Paris attacks have changed the West’s priorities. The Russian military operations have restored the ‘status quo ante’ – the battlefield stalemate – in the overall balance of power.

Put differently, Assad may not be controlling much of Syria, but he cannot be overthrown by force, either. Involving him in a political solution, therefore, may have become unavoidable. Having said that, it is also Russia, which is in a position to bring Assad to the negotiating table.

Of course, in politics no one can hope to wrap up all things for all time. And Kerry didn’t even try. The talks in Moscow signify that the US and Russia will cooperate and work together for an end to the conflict and have agreed on deferring the ‘Assad question’ for the present so that the peace process gets rolling.

Both sides have shown pragmatism. Washington cannot be oblivious that taking Moscow’s help may transmute as allowing greater leverage for Russia in the geopolitics of the Middle East, but what is the alternative?

After the San Bernardino killings, it should be abundantly clear to the Obama administration that Russia’s cooperation is useful and vital for the US to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State.

Propaganda aside, Washington would know that thanks to the Russian military operations, the territory under IS’ control has dramatically shrunk.

However, the great risk remains that the nascent cooperative spirit kindled by Kerry in Moscow may get blighted.

As Dmitry Trenin of Carnegie Russia wrote this week, “Washington and Moscow are now in a phase of extended confrontation. Russia’s recent actions challenged the world order that the United States was trying to shape after the end of the Cold War. The political conflict between Russia and the United States is fundamental. There may be moments when tension eases and cooperation is possible, but there are no obvious options for strategic compromise.”

To be sure, Moscow understands this perfectly well. Which explains its introspective mood after Kerry wound up his working visit and departed late Tuesday evening after clocking over 7 hours of talks.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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