On February 24, Sec. of State John Kerry will embark on his first foreign trip as newly-minted Secretary of State. After making the obligatory stopovers in Europe to check the boxes with key allies, the real business of his mission will take him to Turkey, the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.
It is a testament to the gravitational pull of the turbulent Middle East that it compelled Kerry to place the Obama administration's vaunted pivot to Asia on the backburner. Recall that Hillary Clinton jetted off to Asia on her maiden voyage... Asia can wait.
Kerry's trip in the Middle East is going to be more than merely courtesy calls on U.S. Arab "allies" pending President Obama's March trip to the region, which will take both men to Jerusalem -- a destination conspicuously absent from Kerry's itinerary. Kerry's spokesmen explained that until a post-election Israeli government is approved by the Knesset, it would be preferable to wait a tad longer for meetings with Israeli officials. Given Kerry's close ties with Netanyahu, the bypass did not create yet another tempest in U.S.-Israeli relations.
Syria will dominate Kerry's Middle East agenda and woven throughout his stops are visits to the key players dominating the Syrian Middle East equation. As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry developed a particular expertise on Syria, and had met several times with Syria's President Bashar Al Assad in what was then a concerted effort by successive high-level American visitors to Damascus to wean Assad away from the dark side of Iran and implement reforms -- obviously that U.S. courting had no effect on the clueless Assad.
Since his appointment, Kerry has been quietly crafting a fresh American-led plan to broker a political solution to the bloody Syrian civil war. While its elements are sketchy, it calls for a joint U.S.-Russian engagement bringing together Moaz al Katib -- the elected leader of the Syrian opposition -- and elements of the Syrian regime which, as demanded by the Syrian rebels, do not have "blood on their hands." That may be like searching for Waldo. Katib already faces yet another internal rebellion within his serially divided Syrian opposition over his declared willingness to sit down with Assad's cronies. The key stumbling block as Syria crumbles has been Syrian rebel demands that Assad must go as part of any political agreement. Whether the Russians are prepared to escort their protege to the exit as part of a settlement will be the key indicator whether this latest gambit has any chance of succeeding.
Fortuitously, Kerry will find support for a new peace initiative from, of all places, Assad's closest ally, Russia. In a stunning about-face, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov declared last week Moscow's support for political negotiations between Assad and the Syrian opposition -- a position anathema to Assad. Kerry will meet with Lavrov in Berlin to explore the feasibility of coordinating a joint approach. Given the possibility of a joint U.S.-Russian approach on Syria, this may constitute the first credible opportunity to bring desperately needed pressure on Assad to face his inevitable swan song.
Given the Obama administration's determination to avoid being drawn militarily into the Syrian morass, Kerry's initiative is a way long overdue initiative given the calamitous impact Syria's total disintegration would mean to U.S. foreign policy.
In his final stop, Kerry plans to meet with Egypt's embattled President Morsi. Morsi is scheduled to come to Washington to meet with President Obama later this spring. Kerry will likely be delivering a firm message to Morsi that Congress is in no mood to further reward his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government with U.S. taxpayer assistance unless he reverses course and stops trampling on Egypt's secular opposition in his mad dash to become the Islamist Caliph of Egypt.
Of course, looming in the background on Kerry's agenda is the last gasp of a potential diplomatic resolution over Iran's nuclear weapons program (those talks are going to start shortly in Kazakhstan), and the ever-stagnant Palestinian-Israeli situation, which he and Obama will address when they jointly travel to Israel.
Kerry inherited quite a Middle East mess from his predecessor. He is determined to tackle it head-on, and fortunately, for his president and for the nation, he has the expertise to do so.