New US Secretary of State John Kerry may wish for his tour of Europe and the Middle East to be a "listening tour", but he will nonetheless find in the capitals he shall visit similar enthusiasm for hearing what the second Obama Administration has in store in terms of policies, which still seem vague, fragmented or surrounded by unconstructive obscurity. The main headlines remain the same: First, what will the second Administration do regarding the issue of Syria? President Barack Obama has been losing ground to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who insists on the demand for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to step down being withdrawn or set aside. Furthermore, Obama has seemed like a bystander, nay a spectator, in the Syrian crisis, watching idly by a historic and strategic country breaking down, fragmenting and turning into an arena for a destructive regional sectarian war.
Second, how will the US President fulfill his pledge not to allow Iran to become a nuclear state? And what are the means of preventing it from doing so?
Third, how does the second Administration intend to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, given the new factors it now involves, including the fact that the Palestinian Authority holds new means that represent a double-edged sword?
Fourth, what is the new concept of security in the Gulf region in light of the new facts related to oil production?
Fifth, what will be the features of the new regional - or international - order, especially in the wake of the first Administration embracing the rise of Islamists to power and dwarfing liberal and secular forces? And how will the second Administration behave in the coming years, after having discovered that the mistakes it committed have contributed to strengthening extremism at the expense of moderation, and have led to dangerously undermining democracy in rushing to welcome elections instead of listening to the voices that had asked for constitutions first, warning against the dangers of hasty decisions?
John Kerry himself was known to be an admirer of Bashar Al-Assad and his wife Asma, considering them to represent figures of reform and modernity. It is said today that Kerry, in light of what has happened in Syria, has changed, reconsidered and turned against his former views. His tour of Europe and the Middle East will thus represent a test of whether such a change is a radical one, and whether his past admiration had been a superficial one. Indeed, the issue of Syria will be a prominent one at every stop during his tour, which begins next week with Britain, Germany, France and Italy, followed by Turkey, Egypt, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. All of these countries are active in, or at least concerned with, the issue of Syria. In Rome, Kerry will attend an international meeting on Syria, and will be meeting with the leadership of the opposition Syrian National Coalition opposed. In Ankara, Syria will be heading the agenda. In Cairo, the Syrian issue will also be a prominent one at his meetings with Secretary-General of the League of Arab States Nabil El-Araby, and perhaps also with UN-AL Envoy on the Syrian issue Lakhdar Brahimi. And of course, Syria will be present in the talks that will be held by Kerry in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha, and will focus on Russia and Iran continuing to arm the regime in Damascus, at a time when Washington still refuses to arm the Syrian opposition.
The final decision in terms of whether or not to arm specific parties in the Syrian opposition - not those classified as extremist Jihadists or Al-Qaeda affiliates - will at the end of the day be one that President Obama will take himself. To be sure, the leaders of his first Administration had been divided into two schools of thought: the first supports settling the matter militarily, so as for Syria not to turn into a rallying ground for Jihadists and for groups the likes of Al-Qaeda, or into a rogue state, torn, fragmented and representing an arena for the struggle between Sunni extremism and Shiite extremism. The second is opposed to American involvement in a foreign conflict that would drag the United States into waging proxy wars, and considers the Syrian war to represent an opportunity for exhausting both the Jihadists and the regime and its allies, in particular Iran. This view also considers that Syria would become Iran's Vietnam, meaning that Iran would collapse in the Syrian arena, because it would have become exhausted there, militarily, financially and morally.
Proponents of the first school believe what is coming to be even worse, in terms of the United States getting dragged into an even greater predicament, in view of the growth of the phenomenon of Neo-Jihadists and the spread of sectarian battles to Syria's neighborhood. They point to the fact that more than 70,000 people have been killed, and to a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, and believe that, had it not been for the scandal that forced General David Petraeus to resign from his post as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and for the sudden illness that incapacitated then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, perhaps President Obama's decisions would have been bolder and more determined, instead of the clear pussyfooting that has characterized American policy on Syria.
Proponents of the second school are clinging to their opinion, citing American public opinion which rejects intervening or getting implicated abroad. They are today wagering on the small "peephole" Lakhdar Brahimi spoke about, that is, the possibility of finding a peaceful solution to the conflict, and are in fact investing in it directly. They justify President Obama backing down on demanding that Bashar Al-Assad step down by claiming it to be temporary neutralization of the "Assad obstacle", not a retraction. They say that Assad will neutralize himself, because he will not accept to be excluded, neither temporarily nor gradually, and point to his insistence on what he considered to be his right to participate in elections if they are held in 2014, as he himself said this week. According to the proponents of this school of thought, the Islamic Republic of Iran will not be able to stamp out the Syrian opposition militarily, just as it will not be able to eradicate the Jihadists in Syria, regardless of the amount of force it can mobilize, whether directly or through Hezbollah, on the Syrian battlefield. Thus, the option of a military settlement in Syria is not available to Iran, just as it is not available to the armed opposition across the spectrum. In addition to this, their view is that the regime will not be able to settle the matter militarily, no matter how much military assistance it receives, supplied by Russia by virtue of old or new contracts. They thus raise the banner of reaching an understanding with Russia over the fact that there is "no military solution to the Syrian crisis", as a logical gateway to resolving the crisis through dialogue and negotiations.
John Kerry will find himself in the eye of the storm when he will be asked to clarify: What truly is the policy of the United States? For how long will discussions or differences of opinion persist? And what is the timeframe Washington would accept within the framework of looking for a "political solution", especially as the war is intensifying and as there are no serious indications of any real change in the stances taken by Russia or Iran? An even more important question that will be posed to the US Secretary of State revolves around what evidence he holds that would make him believe that Russia's policy will change, whether in terms of means the United States will provide Russia for a trade-off, in terms of the "Grand Bargain" if it remains possible, or in terms of what the second Administration will do if it finds itself faced with the same Russian obstinacy that was met by the first Administration. Russian diplomacy seems, for the likes of President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, victorious on the issue of Syria. This is not just because it has paralyzed the Security Council, as well as provided the regime in Damascus with the means of salvation and proven that it would not abandon its allies in Damascus and Tehran. But also because it has forced the US President to backtrack on the language of demanding that Assad step down, and has "dodged" providing weapons to the opposition.
In the meantime, Russia has continued to supply the regime with weapons under the pretext of "old contracts," while at the same time gathering near-unanimous international agreement over the slogan of there being "no military solution" in Syria. It has been victorious because it has wagered on the weakness of the US President and on his lack of willingness to confront it, and because it has been able to impose itself once again in major trade-offs and bargains with the United States. This is how Russia views its successes and its achievements on the Syrian scene. Such a view and such a feeling of victory have a major impact on the stances taken by the Syrian President and by the Syrian regime, especially as Russia still refuses to this day to abandon either, and as setting aside the "Assad obstacle" does not mean for Russia a commitment to exclude Assad from the process of political transition altogether. The one who has leapt over the "obstacle" is the United States, not Russia. Indeed, Russia has regained its strength and confidence, and Moscow is today receiving delegations from the leadership of the Syrian opposition and from the regime, as well as Arab ministers. Russia represents today the pole that accompanies, or perhaps rivals, Washington in steering the Syrian issue and shaping the new regional order.
At the regional level, willingness to opt for a military solution also seems to be declining, perhaps for the reasons used to convince by those who find in the Syrian arena an opportunity for all military players there to mutually exhaust each other, or perhaps because the laws regulating American weapons sales prevent the Gulf countries from providing such weapons to the Syrian opposition, or even because the truly active party with the ability to favor a military settlement has also backed down, after it had been making threats and escalating. Of course, we are speaking here of Turkey. There are those who consider that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has backed down, not out of fear of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, but rather out of fear that Turkish military intervention could lead to restoring the standing and the strength of the Turkish army, which would come at the expense of Erdogan himself. To be sure, he - according to those who are of this opinion - fears giving the military a leading role that could represent a gateway for it to revive its influence, which Erdogan has made sure to dwarf and reduce. This may help explain the sudden weakness that has afflicted the enthusiasm that had accompanied the stances taken by Turkey.
John Kerry will hear from the Middle Eastern leaders he will be visiting the extent of their concern at the receding role and leadership of the United States, but he will not hear calls from the Arabs or from the Gulf for directing a military strike against Iran, in fulfillment of Obama's pledge to prevent it from becoming a nuclear state. Indeed, these countries fear the chaos that will unfold in the region if the option of responding to Iran militarily were to be chosen. In their view, such a strike would benefit Tehran's mullahs and awaken Persian nationalism even among those who oppose them. Kerry will listen, and he will be asked about the means to cripple Iran's nuclear capabilities through new technology and cyber warfare. He will hear that the new means held by the Palestinian Authority now, after Palestine has been recognized as a "state", do not represent suicide for the PA, as the US Congress believes, having threatened to cut off all aid to the PA and to UN agencies it would try - as is its right - to join as a member, as it did with UNESCO. He will hear that for the Palestinian Authority to be forced to take measures such as heading to the International Criminal Court (ICC) will only be natural if Israel refuses to stop settlement-building and destroying the two-state solution. And he will be told: do what you can to return to negotiations.
The US Secretary of State will be asked about the second Administration's vision for the security of the Gulf, which the majority of the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) consider to represent an "international, not regional" issue, as one person said. Indeed, there are new factors affecting the relationship between the United States and the Gulf in terms of oil, and thus of security, for the coming decade or even earlier. John Kerry will also be asked about what the second Administration intends to do regarding the Arab region, which is going through a fateful transitional phase and qualitatively new battles.
In short, Kerry may have in mind to ask: What are you thinking about? And those listening to him will answer: What does the second Administration want? And what will it do?