The United States botched the Syria talks before they even began

Editors’ Note: Success at the Syria talks in Geneva is unlikely, but not because of opposition intransigence, writes Steven Heydemann. Rather, the Obama administration itself has increased the odds of failure by tilting towards Russia’s position on the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad. This post originally appeared on
Foreign Policy

When the latest negotiations to end Syria’s long, bloody conflict began on Friday, Jan. 29—the first round of U.N.-sponsored talks in two years—one party was conspicuous by its absence. As diplomats and representatives of the Assad regime gathered in Geneva, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the main opposition umbrella group, refused to attend unless airstrikes and city sieges stopped—conditions that were not met. Over the weekend, the HNC traveled to Geneva, but the status of the talks remained uncertain. Even as this standoff all but derailed the meeting, however, the Obama administration has been steadfast in its determination that the Geneva talks proceed. Expressing cautious optimism in the months leading up to the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the talks as the best chance to “chart a course out of hell.”

Success in Geneva is unlikely, however—but not because of opposition intransigence. Rather, the Obama administration itself has increased the odds of failure. Its recent tilt toward Russia’s position on the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—accepting that he might have a role in a future political transition—has undermined prospects for success, damaged U.S. credibility with the opposition, and further eroded America’s leverage in the Middle East. This shift in U.S. policy has almost certainly made a negotiated settlement in Geneva less likely. Even worse, it could well spur the continued escalation of the Syrian conflict.

It is not too late for the administration to change course, but the odds that it will do so are slim. President Barack Obama has verged on the self-righteous in defending his approach to the brutal war that has battered Syria for nearly five years, destabilized the Middle East, and driven waves of refugees into Europe. He has made clear that he remains determined to take only those measures necessary to “contain” the conflict, but nothing more. Even though the evidence that no aspect of the Syrian conflict has been contained is overwhelming, Obama has continually brushed aside criticism that he has not been sufficiently assertive, characterizing the options he’s been offered as “mumbo jumbo.” Senior White House officials have complained that proposals to expand U.S. involvement recommend a course of action but do not take into account what happens next.

If we take the U.S. president’s claims about the rigor of his policy process seriously, what are we to make of the pivot, led by Kerry, to align with Russia in rejecting regime change—a goal the administration once embraced? Or of the administration’s flip-flop in accepting the possibility that Assad, who is complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity, and is currently starving besieged civilians in Madaya, might remain in power in Syria indefinitely? These concessions to Russia violate a core Obama principle: “Don’t do stupid shit.” Moreover, they reflect the administration’s own failure to think through what happens next, or how shifts in policy would help the United States to achieve its objectives.

Did the White House think through, for instance, how Russian President Vladimir Putin would respond to changes in America’s position on the fate of Assad? Apparently not. Less than 24 hours after the U.N. Security Council approved a Syria transition plan tailored to meet Russia’s requirements, Putin expressed Russia’s readiness to deploy advanced military capabilities in Syria “if necessary” to ensure Assad’s survival. Despite global condemnation, Putin’s forces in Syria continue to target opposition groups the United States hoped to bring to the table in Geneva, killing hundreds of civilians in the process.

Did the White House critically assess the pitfalls of endorsing a Security Council resolution that called on Syrians to hold internationally supervised elections in only 18 months, based on a constitution that has not yet been negotiated, by a body that has yet to be formed? Post-conflict elections are a risky business. After five years of devastation, with half its population displaced and none of the preparatory work for elections begun, what mysterious illogic persuaded the U.S. administration to approve a rush to elections under conditions in which they are more likely to reignite violence than to promote post-conflict reconstruction of Syrian society?

Did the White House even anticipate how its decision would affect the Riyadh process—Saudi Arabia’s effort to unify the Syrian opposition around a shared vision of the country’s future? Kerry’s announcement of a policy shift came just days after a largely representative gathering of Syrian opposition factions in Riyadh issued a statement of principles for a Syria transition process that met many Russian concerns but also affirmed the view that peace in Syria is not possible if Assad remains in office. For no apparent gain, the United States sacrificed the leverage that the Riyadh process might have created around the issue of Assad’s fate. Instead, the White House offered new incentives for the Saudis to counter Russia’s escalation in Syria and for the HNC to boycott the opening of the talks, setting a defiant tone for whatever might follow.

In explaining the administration’s policy shift, Kerry has expressed his conviction that as negotiations unfold they will deliver an outcome that meets opposition requirements. By placating Russia, he seems to believe, Moscow will leverage its influence over the Assad regime, bring it into a diplomatic process, and, ultimately, accept a transition it has consistently rejected. Unfortunately, both of these assumptions are wrong. Russia’s decision to deploy its air force to support regime ground operations saved the Assad regime, but we’ve seen no concrete signs that it has given Moscow the leverage to compel Assad to accept a meaningful transition. Creating uncertainty about the U.S. position on Assad’s fate will only perpetuate ambiguity that both the regime and Russia will exploit. Neither is conducive to an outcome that will end Syria’s conflict, much less produce conditions for a sustainable peace.

Should the Geneva talks overcome the current obstacles, they are more likely to be productive if the United States matches Russian resolve rather than embraces ambiguity simply to get key players to the table. Although Kerry insists that U.S. policy has not changed, his claims have little credibility among Syrians. The opposition’s perception of a U.S. tilt toward Russia reinforces the HNC’s reluctance to be drawn into a process in which its position has been undermined by the United States. As the Geneva talks begin, the opposition needs more than vague reassurances.

Creating uncertainty about the U.S. position on Assad’s fate will only perpetuate ambiguity that both the regime and Russia will exploit.

The White House needs to clarify its commitment to a comprehensive Syria strategy that addresses both the Islamic State and the Assad regime. It must insist that the focus of the Geneva talks is political transition, even as it more strongly supports confidence-building measures between the regime and the opposition, including an end to the starvation siege of Madaya and the use of barrel bombs. Russian support to end the siege would be a true test of its leverage and its commitment to a negotiated transition for Syria. And the White House must clearly reject the Assad regime’s fatuous claims that a transition will not be possible until terrorism is eliminated.

Matching Russian resolve will require the United States to reaffirm its view that Assad is illegitimate and to reject efforts to water down the terms of the Geneva I communiqué approved by the United Nations in June 2012, eliminating any ambiguity about the imperative of Assad’s removal from power at some point in the transition process. The Obama administration should also make clear that the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2254 cannot undermine Geneva I and is contingent on conditions in which elections can contribute to—rather than undermine—Syria’s post-conflict recovery.

After nearly five years of misery, Syrians deserve better from the White House than a policy that privileges process over substance. If these talks are to become a path out of hell, the United States has an obligation to make sure that the pathway is clearly marked and leads to an outcome that will not simply perpetuate Syria’s conflict.