Despite its admission that the UN-backed Kofi Annan plan in Syria was failing, the Obama administration appears to have settled into the plan’s process.
The administration’s backing of the plan has brought US policy back to where it was last fall. This has led to criticism that Washington is running around in circles, with no strategic compass. The contention was further bolstered recently when an anonymous administration official acknowledged that “We need a real Syria policy,” noting that when allies were asking the administration about its “next move,” US diplomats “were forced to admit” they “didn’t have one.”
But another look at what at first glance appears to be a haphazard policy trajectory shows that, in fact, there is a steady pattern to the US president’s decisions on how to deal with Syria. Since the eruption of the Syrian revolt last year, President Obama has been looking for a negotiated settlement to it, and for a third party to help broker it.
When the revolution broke out last spring, President Obama first turned to Turkey. At the time, the Turks shared Obama’s preference for a political settlement. This policy was behind Obama’s long delay to declare Assad illegitimate, and then to issue a statement calling for him to “step aside.” The hope at the time was that the Turks would use their supposed influence with Assad in order to broker a deal between him and the “Sunni opposition” – likely a reference to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, with which Ankara has strong ties.
That policy collapsed, as the Turks not only failed in their endeavor, but also, as Assad increased the violence, they steadily moved to a policy premised on his departure from power. More importantly, this shift required more US involvement and active leadership.
Reluctant to assume this role, Obama then turned to another third party: the Arab League. In late October 2011, the League reached an agreement with the Assad regime on an Action Plan that bore a remarkable resemblance to the current Annan initiative. In addition, the Arab Action Plan called for holding a “national dialogue” between Assad and the various strands of the opposition.
Much like today with the Annan plan and the UN monitors mission, the Arab plan afforded President Obama three months before the Saudis and Qataris, who were always skeptical of the plan, would come back with a push for more muscular measures. Once again, the issue was thrown back on Washington’s lap.
The Arabs would go on to table another transition initiative that explicitly called on Assad to hand over power to his vice president. And while the US endorsed that plan, it ended up effectively neutralizing it through President Obama’s insistence on going through the Russians, who rejected it.
Obama may have calculated that, unlike the Turks or the Arabs, Russia is a third party that could actually persuade Assad to accept a deal. In fact, some anonymous US officials cited by journalist David Ignatius have suggested that this was precisely the thinking in the White House. As a result, the second Arab initiative was shelved, and the Annan plan, which conforms to Russia’s conditions, was adopted.
Consequently, Russia’s margin has increased. It is now the destination for opposition groups, such as the National Coordination Committee, who are willing to dialogue with Assad under Moscow’s aegis, and who are offering the Russians guarantees to preserve Syria’s current strategic orientation. In contrast, a planned visit to Washington by the Syrian National Council, which rejects dialogue with Assad, was recently cancelled without proper explanation.
Commentators both in the US and in the Arabic press have noted President Obama’s reelection priorities and the red lines those priorities have imposed on policy options in Syria. Running on a narrative of extrication from the Middle East, the president wants above all else to prevent going down a slippery slope leading to direct intervention.
So while it has caused the administration to be reactive to the initiatives of other players, the pattern of the policy has had an undergirding rationale, and that is President Obama’s consistent preference for a political solution to the situation in Syria—one brokered by someone other than Washington.
However, even the president’s predisposition is not emanating from a carefully thought-out plan; if anything, it’s a product of the lack of one. Much like he did with the Turks last year, Obama is overestimating the influence of the Russians. Furthermore, the Kremlin has explicitly expressed its opposition to the emergence of a “Sunni regime” in Syria. Yet to be explained is how the Sunni opponents of the regime – or even its Kurdish opponents – will be made to go along with Moscow’s scheme, which intends to preserve regime continuity in Syria.
In the end, the Russian scheme is likely to meet the same fate as that of its Turkish and Arab predecessors. US allies, however, will still be asking the administration: “What’s your next move?”
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.