Is a Deal Cooking?

Senior officials of countries very closely allied to the United States are registering with a variety of contacts their concern that Secretary of State John Kerry is “rushing into a deal” that would accept the Russian interpretation of the Syrian transitional governing body mandated by the June 30, 2012 Geneva Final Communiqué. Moscow wants the transitional entity to be a national unity government: a prime minister and cabinet taking orders from President Bashar al-Assad. Washington would reportedly accept the national unity government approach provided Assad’s constitutional powers and tenure were limited. If this is true, it is a snare and a delusion that would prolong and even deepen Syria’s agony and the migration crisis accompanying it.

Early in the Syrian crisis there was interest in Washington and among the Arab Gulf States in an “Ali Abdullah Salih solution” for Syria. Salih, the longtime president of Yemen, had been sidelined but allowed to remain at large in the country and in the company of his own security forces. At the time, the Salih solution looked attractive: this was years before Mr. Salih’s continued presence in Yemen would prove to be the country’s undoing. Anyone proposing something roughly analogous now for Syria had better take a careful look at that being replicated.

No doubt the administration would point to the fact that Russia and Iran have secured Mr. Assad militarily. No doubt it counsels the Syrian opposition to mind the old adage about beggars not being choosers. The bluntness of the advice is no doubt cushioned with soothing verbiage about keeping expectations under control. No one now serving in the US government should worry about the expectations of any friend being out of control.

Still, it is true: Moscow and Tehran have dismissed plaintive Western pleas about there being no military solution in Syria by creating one. From Russia’s perspective, Assad personifies the state it has rescued from American regime change machinations; all that is required now is for President Barack Obama to acknowledge that Assad is Syria’s legitimate chief executive and a partner in the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). As far as Iran is concerned, Assad alone can reliably subordinate Syria to Tehran’s representative in Lebanon: Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah. Even if Moscow tires of Assad (presumably after securing Obama’s acknowledgement), Tehran will not. Unless, that is, if Iran-Israel peace looms.

On one level, therefore, it seems perfectly rational for Washington to apply its notion of the diplomatic art of the possible to Syria: as John Kerry reportedly put it to a group of European interlocutors, to find a “creative role” for Assad. At least one senior American official has devoted quality time to the pursuit of an amended or new Syrian constitution. Is it possible the United States has confused Syria with Sweden?

Agreeing to keep Assad in office is to allow the assailant to hold forth in the intensive care unit while a barely conscious, bleeding patient struggles to breathe. Is this the limit of what the United States seeks? Perhaps it is. Indeed, if the most this administration is willing to do with respect to Syria is figuratively to try to apply lipstick to a pig, so be it. Perhaps Bashar al-Assad could suppress his laughter long enough to be sworn-in as Syria’s constitutional equivalent of the Queen of England or the President of Israel. Yet if a supposed defanged and out-of-office Salih was a ticking time bomb for Yemen, an Assad clan and entourage rolling in money and armed to the teeth with its head still ‘serving’ would make an instant mockery of whatever has been reduced to writing in the form of a constitution or agreed Russian-American talking points for the press. Has regime behavior over the past five years established no factual baseline?

Perhaps the administration banks on the certainty that Moscow will remove Assad from the scene altogether after a few months of obliging him to serve tea to visiting volunteer firemen. That proposition needs testing right now. Let Russia compel the cessation of regime air and artillery attacks on civilian residential areas; let Moscow dictate to the so-called Syrian government that UN relief convoys will henceforth go where they want and when they want with no more than a perfunctory notification to Syrian functionaries. If Russia cannot or will not do this, how will it force its murderous client onto a train to Minsk or the slow boat to Caracas? Will Tehran not have a ‘vote’ on all of this in any event?

The administration—John Kerry in particular—deserves great credit for having suppressed violence and facilitated humanitarian aid to the extent it has. Yes, the cessation of hostilities has been far short of a real cessation, and yes, it might break down completely at any moment. Still, Kerry has given one and all a demonstration of what is achievable with no discernible leverage. Perhaps this will be as good as it gets until a new president is inaugurated: and it is far from nothing. One of the many things that would be worse than a labor-intensive effort to keep a lid on Syria would be an attempt to repackage and repurpose a mass murderer: especially so if it is attempted with allies in the dark. Forget the abysmal immorality of it. It simply will not work.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry, accompanied by US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on May 7, 2013. US Department of State.