Small Steps after Geneva

United States Secretary of State John Kerry (L) departs Montreux, on January 23, 2014, to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos. Kerry attended yesterday the plenary session of the the Geneva II peace talks on Syria.AFP PHOTO POOL GARY CAMERON United States Secretary of State John Kerry (L) departs Montreux on January 23, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/POOL/GARY CAMERON)

United States Secretary of State John Kerry (L) departs Montreux on January 23, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/POOL/GARY CAMERON)

For months leading up to Geneva II, John Kerry, more so than President Barack Obama, pinned his hopes on an active diplomatic approach to end Syria's civil war. Alongside the Israel–Palestine dispute, Iran and a whole list of pressing global issues, Kerry and his team at the State Department doggedly pursued what looked by the fall of 2013 to be increasingly unachievable: getting to the two sides of the Syrian conflict to sit down and talk face-to-face in Geneva. With very little leverage available, Kerry sought to prod the Russians to deliver Assad’s delegation to the talks, and at the same time corral the disjointed and bickering Syrian National Coalition into showing up.

These efforts bore fruit when both sides agreed this past January to meet for talks. Kerry's decision to exclude Iran from these negotiations was arguably his only substantial misstep in a commendable feat of diplomacy. While the recent Geneva talks ended on a sour note, Kerry's diplomacy was a substantial last-ditch effort to resuscitate President Obama's Syria policy.

Obama acknowledged that reality this past week when he noted that the current diplomatic efforts to end Syria's civil war were not achieving the desired results, and that new options needed to be considered. Members of his administration described the situation in Syria in even starker terms. James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, observed that Syria has become an "apocalyptic disaster," while Jeh Johnson, the US Secretary of Homeland Security, warned that the proliferation of Westerners fighting in Syria poses a substantial threat to US national security.

These comments underlie the administration's main take-away from Geneva II: President Assad will only be more amenable to negotiation if the military balance of power in Syria is less in his favor. The White House also recognizes that risks to both Syria's neighbors and to US national security are growing by the day, and they cannot be sufficiently managed by current US policy.

A number of options—from increased military assistance for the moderate armed opposition to deploying drones to target jihadists—are reportedly being discussed at the White House. At the UN, US representative Samantha Power is pushing for a new Security Council resolution calling for expanded humanitarian access in Syria to address the growing humanitarian crisis. Kerry has also publicly accused Russia of obstructing the peace process and has encouraged Moscow to be more constructive.

Despite these somber conclusions, President Obama has expressed very little appetite for deepening US involvement in a civil war where, in his estimation, there are more risks to than benefits from increased American involvement, and where none of the options under consideration are necessarily game-changers. He is also aware of how little public support exists for American involvement in Syria.

Given this, Obama will likely take only small steps to address Syria's civil war in the coming months. These steps might include broader support for the moderate armed opposition, more coordination with regional states, expanded military assistance to Syria's neighbors, and an expansive counterterrorism operation to track and target jihadists operating in Syria.

One can hope that these small steps might change Assad's calculations and bring him to Geneva III prepared to reach a political settlement. But it's more likely that while these steps may be heading in the right direction, they will not alter the situation on the ground enough to change Assad's perceptions, nor will they contain the growing effects the civil war is having both on the region and on US national security. These steps are arguably too little, too late. President Obama would likely have to take bigger steps to make a meaningful difference, but he still appears unprepared to take such risks.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.