Posted by on February 07, 2014 in Blog

By Marc Sabbagh
Spring Intern, 2014

With recent news that Secretary of State John Kerry may be searching for a new approach on Syria, coupled with his harsh critique of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s use of barrel bombs against civilians, the dismal outcome of the Geneva II negotiations is becoming increasingly apparent. Nearly 1,900 Syrians were killed during the span of the recent talks and it was reported that the Syrian government is far behind schedule when it comes to surrendering their chemical weapons arsenal.

Kerry’s apparent change in tune was also accompanied by his assertion that any “options we deem necessary” are still valid given the news of Assad’s slow execution of the chemical weapons deal. These developments would lead many to assume the United States is considering new tactics to push for an end to the conflict in Syria.

Instead, the United States seems to be limiting its options by putting strategy over tragedy.

For one, the White House is pushing a very different narrative than the Secretary of State. Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor at the White House, did not point to the potential for a more aggressive and robust international approach regarding Syria in a briefing last week on the administration’s foreign policy priorities. Rather, he emphasized that “not only would there be huge costs and consequences associated with a U.S. military action, but ultimately, that wouldn’t resolve the underlying political differences.”

After Kerry’s reported lamentations on the U.S. approach to Syria, White House press secretary Jay Carney also diverged from the Secretary of State, saying a “negotiated political settlement” was the only way forward.

What is the “strategy?”

Muddling U.S. options and rhetoric on Syria is part of a “strategy” that unfortunately has little to do with Syria, and may have more to do with making sure U.S.-Iran rapprochement efforts remain intact while limiting further growth of al-Qaeda affiliated groups and other extremist elements in Syria.

Many officials and news outlets insist the United States is not linking Syria talks to U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, but events like the Iran invitation snafu in the lead up to Geneva II indicate otherwise. Ideally, the administration hopes that progress on one issue, if executed carefully, could create opportunities for engagement on the other.

This strategy has been marked by a shift away from rhetoric insisting on Assad’s departure to finding ways to potentially deal with the Assad regime, an important change that might signal the United States is more concerned with the risk of bolstering extremist groups than with allowing Iran to gain some leverage through a political settlement in Syria that involves Assad. In the State of the Union address, President Obama said the United States would “support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks,” moving away from clear rhetoric that unconditionally calls for Assad’s removal from power.

What would focus on the “tragedy” of Syria look like?

The administration has so far appeared indifferent to shaping public and Congressional opinion on Syria in a way that could advance diplomatic efforts or prepare the way for policy alternatives. Key government officials and the media are rarely pushing the facts that 15 percent of the Syrian population has been displaced (a number expected to double by the end of 2014), that Syrian refugees now make up one quarter of Lebanon’s population, and that over 130,000 Syrians, including 10,000 children, have been killed. The United Nations, in fact, has stopped keeping count of the dead.

In the lead up to Geneva II, graphic images demonstrating the tragedies occurring in Syria were released publicly. The Obama administration knew of the images since late last year, but failed to leverage these public revelations about the Assad regime’s brutal tactics before Geneva. Similar to the backtracking over the chemical weapons “red line” and the confusion over arming the moderate opposition before that, the administration continued to dither instead of crafting a forceful “call to action.”

The White House appears to be standing by the skeptical sentiments of the American public on Syria, which may have largely been influenced by the administration inadvertently creating a boogeyman of the opposition and continually wedding policy options to the Iraq war.

The Obama administration should heed Secretary of State James Baker’s account detailing the importance of building a credible coalition among Arab leaders, the United Nations, Congress and the American public while considering numerous options before the Gulf War. They might also consider the successes and failures of the coalition-building before and after the Libyan intervention. These two military actions are by no means direct parallels to the situation in Syria, but they show that forceful and sustained diplomatic efforts are needed to get the international community, Congress, and the American public on board for a robust and clearly defined strategy.

Military drawdown and a cautious regional approach should not mean a decrease of proactive engagement on Syria, whether rhetorically, politically or economically. The hesitance by the Obama administration has already resulted in a widening of the conflict and a compounding of issues, leading Kerry to say that “it’s fair to say that Assad has improved his position a little bit.”

When will the United States strike a better balance between delivering on strategy and addressing the tragedy? U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power may be starting to take the lead, and numerous academics and policymakers have detailed other approaches that can be taken in conjunction with ongoing negotiations. Still, public support and awareness are key factors in any effort. It’s time to put the tragedy first.

 

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