President Obama kicked off his second term in office with an agenda firmly focused on domestic issues. The conflict in Syria, with more than 70,000 dead and its ills already starting to reach its neighbors, received barely a mention in either Obama’s Inaugural Address or his State of the Union speech to Congress.
Syria did receive unexpected attention in an interview with the then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the New York Times at the end of January. In her interview, the former Secretary admitted that she and David Petraeus, the CIA director at the time, had urged President Obama to arm and train the rebels in the summer of 2012. Warning that the conflict in Syria was becoming more radicalized and that the diplomatic efforts were stalling, Clinton and Petraeus urged the president to take a more proactive role in bringing the conflict in Syria to an end. A few days later, at a Senate Armed Services committee hearing, Secretary of Defense Panetta and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, also admitted that they had supported the proposal, but the president had decided against it.
With this rare public airing of dissent and questions about the viability of America’s Syria policy growing louder in the press, the new secretary of State, John Kerry, sought to get ahead of the story. In his first official media appearance at the beginning of February, he emphasized that the administration was conducting a review of its Syria policy. With no details given on what the review would entail or what options would be considered beyond referencing the need for a political solution, expectations of a substantive change in American policy towards Syria were low.
These low expectations were met when Kerry unveiled his new Syria initiative on February 13. Kerry stated, “I believe there are additional things that can be done to change his [Assad’s] current perception . . . my goal is to see us change his calculation.” He also mentioned that he would try to re-engage Russia on Syria, but gave few details of how he would achieve success in either of these goals.
Kerry is not the first statesman to travel down the well-trodden path to Damascus. Prime Minister Erdoğan of Turkey, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and UN Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi all believed that their warm relations with President Bashar Al-Assad would give them an advantage in changing his mind, or at least his perceptions. They all ended up leaving Damascus unsatisfied. Embarking on this journey later than others, Kerry, who also once had warm relations with President Assad, is surprisingly optimistic in light of these previous failures.
In conversations with former members of the Assad regime and those currently affiliated with the regime in Damascus, these statesmen concluded that President Assad has decided that he is in a strong enough position to force the opposition to accept his terms. Moreover, they have noted that the substantive concessions demanded by the opposition and members of the international community would threaten the regime’s survival. For a political compromise to be acceptable, President Assad and his inner circle’s interests and position in the state would have to be protected. Until such conditions are reached, the regime will continue to bet its future on its ability to suppress the armed opposition.
Such a dialogue, in practice, is not feasible. It is hard to imagine that a major opposition group like the Syrian National Coalition would ever seriously consider preserving the regime’s existing political, economic and security powers within the Syrian state. President Assad’s calculation that he is in a position to demand these concessions makes Kerry’s statements that he can convince Assad of the need to negotiate in good faith difficult to take seriously.
The only area where Kerry may be able to change Assad’s calculations is if he is able to secure a political agreement with Moscow. None of Kerry’s statements, however, shed any light on how he might persuade the Kremlin to cease its financial and military assistance to the regime in Damascus. If the new secretary can secure an agreement with Moscow, this could potentially persuade Assad that a more balanced deal that his opponents could also get behind is his best option, but appears unlikely given that Hillary Clinton spent two years to move Moscow’s position with success.
While further details of this initiative will be announced in the coming weeks, Kerry has yet to publicly state new ideas to breaking the deadlock in Syria. Instead, he has merely repackaged the President Obama’s current policy without changing its substance. This may ease some of the public pressure to take a more active role in Syria, something President Obama has expressed no interest in doing, but it offers no solutions to preventing Syria from imploding and destabilizing the region during his tenure as secretary of State.