03/08/2013 02:26 pm ET Updated May 08, 2013

U.S. Prevarication Prolongs Syria's Tragedy

Positions expressed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ranged from flexibility towards the Syrian and Iranian leaderships at the beginning of his tour in Europe, to militancy vis-à-vis Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Iranian role in Syria, near the end of his Middle Eastern tour, in Qatar. Kerry's position underwent several changes during the tour, reflecting the personality of President Barack Obama, and his keenness on betting on soft power while rejecting direct intervention. Some of that change came as the natural outcome of Kerry's "listening and gauging" tour of European and Arab capitals, as well as Turkey. Another contributing factor was the developments on the Syrian arena, both political and military. Yet one tacit determinant that prompted the new U.S. Secretary of State to readjust from a stick to a carrot approach was Russia - and the clarity of its intention to manipulate the Obama administration's isolationist tendencies. Informed Gulf sources said that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Gulf officials a few days ago that the Syrian president was a "red line." Russia, he asserted to them, had invested a lot in Syria and would not allow what happened in Libya to be repeated - in reference to what the Russian side sees as Western exclusion of their country and an affront to its national standing.

Practically speaking, this position reneges on another ambiguous agreement between Russian and U.S. diplomacies. Just ten days ago, Lavrov suggested to Kerry in their meeting at the beginning of the latter's European tour that Russia was prepared to work in earnest for a political solution, including putting pressure on Assad in parallel with the U.S. putting pressure on the Syrian opposition. But Lavrov had not offered any guarantees, or at least this is what Russian diplomats would claim later. He only promised to pursue efforts with the Syrian regime, bearing in mind that Russia - whenever this suited it - has often maintained that it had limited influence on the Syrian leader; Assad, as it stood, did not listen to the Russians, and heeded more what the Iranian side had to say. Russia has never declared that it was ready to give up the Syrian president; instead, it has stuck to the demand that Assad continue playing a role in any transitional process, while insisting on the U.S. backtracking from demanding that Assad step down if a political solution was desired.

Hillary Clinton, former U.S. secretary of state, had considered the Geneva agreement in June, 2012 a diplomatic feat. Clinton understood the agreement to be an accord among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council over a political process that would see Syria transition from the current regime to a new administration.
Not illogically, the former secretary had assumed that this process practically implied the Syrian president gradually withdrawing from power, under a joint umbrella made up of the five permanent members. But when it became clear to Clinton that her assumption was never inferred by Lavrov, but quite the contrary, she concluded that she had been ambushed by her Russian counterpart. Indeed, from the outset, Lavrov wanted to cherry-pick the parts that suited him in the Geneva agreement, and went on to set the trap that caught Clinton and her European counterparts. John Kerry seemed welcoming of Sergei Lavrov's enthusiasm for a positive, reconciliatory relationship with him. He was quick to delegate the Syrian issue to Russia, in the belief that an opportunity has presented itself for a qualitative shift in U.S.-Russian relations. This came after Washington agreed to Russian conditions that have altered the perquisites for political transition in Syria, most notably, that the U.S. cease demanding that Assad step down and pursue a political solution to the conflict as the sole avenue.

Kerry assumed, like his predecessor Clinton, that this signaled Russia's consent to a new process of political transition that would culminate with the departure of Assad. Yet this was a purely American assumption, unmatched by Russia. So perhaps Kerry realized this during the Arabian Gulf leg of his tour, where he was briefed about what Lavrov had told Gulf officials, about Assad being a "red line." Kerry inaugurated his first tour as secretary of state under Obama's second administration by calling on the Syrian president to listen to his people. Then at the end of his tour, he stated, "Bashar Assad is destroying his country and his people in the process to hold onto power that is not his anymore. The people have made it clear he's lost his legitimacy." The gradual shift in Kerry's positions was not limited to the outlook on the Syrian president, but also included the U.S. stance on "the political solution" and the nature of American support to the Syrian opposition. Kerry started out by offering to deliver medical and food aid directly to the Syrian opposition as well as training, while continuing to withhold lethal weapons out of fear they might fall into the hands of extremist groups like al-Nusra Front. Then at the end of his tour, Kerry said, "There is no guarantee that one weapon or another might not at some point in time fall into the wrong hands. But I will tell you this: there is a very clear ability now in the Syrian opposition to make certain that what goes to the moderate, legitimate opposition is, in fact, getting to them, and the indication is that they are increasing their pressure [on the regime] as a result of that." Kerry added, "The bad actors have no shortage of their ability to get weapons from Iran, from Hezbollah, from Russia," and stressed that the U.S. was standing against the Iranians who are helping them as well as Hezbollah and groups affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Kerry's positions evolved during his foreign visits, becoming increasingly assertive towards Damascus and Tehran, while finally making the distinction between the extremist and moderate elements in the Syrian opposition. Kerry stressed the importance of making sure the weapons went to the moderate opposition, and said that his administration now had greater confidence in the opposition, but that it could not be guaranteed that weapons would not fall into the hands of the wrong people, stressing that it must be ensured that support was reinforcing the moderate opposition.

The United States had hitherto been reluctant to support the Free Syrian Army (FSA), for fear of the radical Islamists. Now, it seems that it has reassessed its position, and no longer fears that weapons may fall into the hands of jihadists. Why? Because the FSA has held its ground even under the current military balance tipped in favor of the regime, and because there is a need to restore balance to the battlefield. Restoring the military balance of power, as Kerry's shifting positions revealed, is necessary not only in the battle between the regime and the opposition, but also in the context of negotiations or U.S.-Russian accords. To be sure, such a balance is an important element to influence Russian attitudes, because Moscow is increasingly belligerent, self-confident and assertive vis-à-vis its American interlocutor, especially when the balance of power on the ground favors its ally, the Syrian regime. Thus, the U.S. position gradually navigated away from opposition to a military solution and to direct military support to the Syrian opposition, to agreeing to introduce a serious change in the military equation on the ground before it is too late. The U.S. has come around and will provide certain types of military support including training, intelligence and so force.

In addition, the U.S. is coordinating with Britain and other European and Arab countries to secure other types of advanced military support to the Syrian opposition. Meanwhile, in conjunction with the conclusion of Kerry's tour in Doha, an extremely significant meeting took place between the Saudi crown prince and the Emir of Qatar. All this signifies that American fears over weapons falling in the hands of the extremists have receded, in tandem with a more aggressive U.S. role in a marked departure from previous U.S. reluctance. At the same time, any hope in persuading Russia to approve a resolution at the UN Security Council under Chapter VII has also receded. It was hoped that such a resolution would give the political process in Syria a solid footing that would prevent it from being used to buy time and engage in horse-trading. To be sure, the Gulf leaders have made it clear to the U.S. Secretary of State that they would not abandon the Syrian opposition and sit idly by awaiting U.S.-Russian accord, something that seems to have no serious prospect of happening, or a political solution without a specified time frame.

With the end of Kerry's exploratory tour, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Arab League adopted remarkable positions. These include firm hints to the U.S. secretary that the Arab side rejects to sit in the backseat while Obama's second administration courts Iran and bargains with Russia over issues that have nothing to do with Syria. The Arab side also adopted new stances toward the Syrian issue. In addition to the important visit made by the Saudi crown prince to Doha, GCC Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayani went to Lebanon at the behest of the Gulf nations, to notify Lebanese officials of the GCC's "grave concern over Lebanon's recent stances, and [the involvement] of Lebanese factions in Syria which is not consistent with the country's policy (of self-dissociation)." In other words, the Gulf nations may soon consider Lebanon's government either a partner in Hezbollah's policy, which directly supports the Syrian regime, or that the president and prime minister of Lebanon have lost control over Hezbollah - with the result being the same in both cases. Indeed, the message is not only one of protest, but also one that carries a warning that there may be consequences to Lebanese "mischief."

Such consequences, according to Gulf sources, will not be limited to economic relations between Lebanon and Gulf countries, and the deadly repercussions of this over the Lebanese economy. To be sure, the fact that Hezbollah has become a direct party in the axis that also includes Iran and the regime in Damascus, supported by Russia, implicates Lebanon across the Syrian-Lebanese border, and expands the circle of belligerents in the battle with the Syrian regime to include Hezbollah. This means, according to the Gulf side, that the Lebanese government must bear the consequences of its positions, while Hezbollah must prepare for possible fallout in Europe that would affect its relations and international standing, as the Europeans have inched closer to joining this view and lifting their protection of Hezbollah. No doubt, sending the GCC secretary general with this unprecedented message marks an important development that reflects the gravity of the matter and the need to address it urgently. Either the Lebanese government is able to do so or not, and in both cases, there will be consequences.

The Gulf nations and the Arab League made a move this week in the direction of heading off Iranian and Russian overtures which the U.S. administration had met with alacrity, and also to make a break with sitting idly by while watching catastrophe unfold in Syria. The confrontations are likely to become even more heated in the coming round, and U.S. policy will once again swing, perhaps towards greater understanding with the Gulf countries this time. Yet the U.S. compass continues to flutter, and until further notice, this prevarication only prolongs the Syrian tragedy.