Syria: The Ground Truth and Geneva

At a recent conference, Dr. Steve Heydemann called attention to an important statement by Secretary of State John Kerry that clearly outlines how he sees the relationship between the combat situation on the ground in Syria and the likelihood that a Geneva 2 conference would implement the political transition provisions of the Geneva 1 Final Communiqué. During a press conference with Qatar’s Minister of Foreign Affairs on October 21, 2013, Secretary Kerry noted:

When he became Secretary of State, Mr. Kerry made it clear in the Syria context that changing the calculation of Bashar al-Assad with respect to negotiated political transition was all important: that Assad had manifested no interest in being transitioned to ex-dictator status. Early indications suggested that the secretary of state, a decorated combat veteran, aimed to change Mr. Assad’s calculation by supporting the nationalist Supreme Military Council and related Free Syrian Army units operationally on the ground inside Syria.

Mr. Kerry worked hard to get non-lethal assistance rolling in the direction of the Council and its commander, General Selim Idris. This was not an easy lift for an Obama administration senior official. Then on June 13, in the wake of repeated regime chemical red line crossings, the administration announced enhanced assistance to the armed opposition—aid assumed by many to be lethal in nature. Finally, the chemical mass murder of August 21, 2013 offered President Barack Obama a once in a lifetime opportunity: kill those regime systems (artillery, aircraft, rockets, and missiles) dealing death and destruction randomly to Syrian civilians (whether via chemical munitions or conventional); and in the process make Mr. Assad and his regime kingpins think seriously about a negotiated exit.

That opportunity was compromised by a sudden referral of the matter to the US Congress. Then it was traded away for a chemical weapons deal that sought to redefine Syria, for the benefit of a hesitant, skeptical, and doubtful US president, as an arms control problem. As such, progress in Syria could be defined largely in terms of chemical weapons production facilities destroyed and munitions removed—a challenge somewhat more manageable than humanitarian catastrophe, state failure, and the implantation of al-Qaeda affiliates in the heart of an ungovernable, but regionally strategic space.

Clearly, the conscious willingness to barter away the credible threat of military force was worth far more to Russia than what was eventually purchased. At a minimum, Russian assistance in curbing Mr. Assad’s daily program of mass terror through conventional shelling and bombing should have been secured. Surely, lethal assistance to Syrian nationalists squeezed between the regime on one side and al-Qaeda affiliates on the other would have been upgraded sharply, with the US Department of Defense taking the lead in arming, training, and equipping.

Neither of these steps was taken. Instead the entirety of the American diplomatic effort—stripped naked of anything resembling a credible threat of military force, no matter the size or scope of regime atrocities—has centered on convening a Geneva 2 conference. Washington’s theory of the case seems to be that political transition must precede all else, including those humanitarian deescalatory steps that Kofi Annan thought had to happen first in order for serious talks about transition to take place. Mr. Kerry’s words in Paris seem to suggest the belief that if Bashar al-Assad reads and understands the Final Communiqué and then sends a team to Geneva, political transition will occur as a matter of course.

There is nothing in the way of objective evidence suggesting that Mr. Assad is reconciled to the prospect of being transitioned. At a recent hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Mr. Kerry’s point man on Syria, Ambassador Robert Ford, implied that the United States and Russia are of one mind on political transition in Syria. If Moscow has indeed accepted the inevitability of negotiations, pursued on the basis of mutual consent to produce a transitional governing body that would exercise full executive power and exclude the Assad regime, great. It would be better yet if Russia were able and willing to impose this result on its Syrian client. A quiet word about this diplomatic breakthrough to the Syrian National Coalition would guarantee its presence and its active, enthusiastic participation in the Geneva festivities. Alas, evidence to the effect that Russia is prepared to move beyond the Assad regime has not yet manifested itself. And Iran will remain committed to the only faction in Syria willing to subordinate Syrian national security interests to those of Tehran in the context of Lebanon’s Hezbollah: Iran’s first line of defense against Israel.

This, in fact, is what it comes down to. Unless Iran and Russia are willing to work in tandem to predispose Mr. Assad to a negotiated solution that will exclude him, his clan, and his closest enablers from Syria’s governance, nothing obliges the regime to come to Geneva and play by the rules. One should not expect Bashar al-Assad, having done the homework prescribed by Secretary Kerry, to smack his forehead and exclaim, “Now I get it! The purpose of Geneva is to escort me offstage! Well, let’s get on with it.”

John Kerry had it right months ago and he’s had it right for nearly the entirety of his adult life: whether you’re up or down on the battlefield does indeed matter in the greater diplomatic scheme of things. It matters decisively. It may well be that the United States has abandoned even the most ineffectual of efforts to affect the balance on the ground by supporting armed Syrian nationalists, who are being increasingly marginalized, yet this cannot be adequate grounds for the repeal of Clausewitz.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Secretary of State John F. Kerry, left, confers with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel during testimony on U.S. military intervention in Syria before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the Senate Hart Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 3, 2013. (Photo: US Department of Defense)