Tony Badran

Washington washes its hands of Syria

Following the fiasco of peace envoy Kofi Annan’s plan and the monitor mission to Syria, all eyes are on the White House to see what its response will be.
After a meeting of NATO ministers in Brussels yesterday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered the following assessment of where Washington’s Syria policy stood: “Either we succeed in pushing forward with Kofi Annan's plan, or we see Assad squandering his last chance before additional measures have to be considered.” The secretary’s comment was useful only insofar as it captured several of the problems and contradictions that have plagued the Obama administration’s failed Syria policy.
That Clinton was still pushing the Annan plan was in itself a statement on the bankruptcy of the administration’s policy ideas. The plan, widely viewed as a lifeline to President Bashar al-Assad, has been roundly criticized, especially for calling for a “Syrian-led” dialogue between Assad and his opponents, thereby legitimizing the dictator.
But the troublesome details of the plan aside, the most embarrassing fact for the administration remains that Assad, with Russian cover, has made a total mockery of it. Since Annan’s April 10 deadline, Assad’s forces have not stopped their military campaign against the population, and they have escalated their search and arrest operations.
This left the administration in an awkward position. Unwilling to declare the mission a failure, which it obviously was, it resorted instead to cautioning against the erosion of the “fragile ceasefire” – even when no ceasefire ever took place. Finally, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice wrote on Twitter that the “Syrian regime lied to the world, lied to its people … Words are meaningless. Actions are what matter.”
But all this begs the obvious question: Did the administration really not know this was going to happen and that Assad was going to fire on the opposition, round up opponents and put them in prison? Did Washington not yet realize that this regime is all about lying and violence? Is this regime's nature somehow a mystery, following not only the last 13 months of torture and murder, but the previous 40 years, during which the Assad family perfected the simultaneous use of talks and violence against its neighbors and the US?
Which brings us to Clinton’s comment about the mission being a “last chance” for Assad. Why the US would be interested in an initiative that offers chances to the bloody dictator is hard to fathom. However, the secretary’s choice of words reflected what has been a shift in President Obama’s position away from his declaration last August that Assad had to “step aside,” and back to the one he made in May of last year, in which he called on Assad to “lead the transition” – precisely the Russian preference, which was reflected in the Annan plan.
Not only did the US president make this concession to Moscow, but it also appears that he sought the help of president-elect Vladimir Putin to midwife this “political solution.” According to US officials who spoke to journalist David Ignatius earlier this month, the White House was hoping Putin “can broker a Syria deal before he meets Obama at the G-8 summit next month.”
That this was indeed the administration’s thinking was confirmed in Ambassador Rice’s interview with CNN the other day. When asked the most pressing question – what next? – Rice replied that the “next step really is for those who have maximum influence on Assad to continue to use it,” in an obvious reference to Russia, which she noted had “a great stake in the success of the Annan plan.”
President Obama, adamant on resisting calls for direct US intervention, had essentially subcontracted the policy to Russia. The administration sold the unanimous passage of UNSC Resolution 2042 in support of Annan’s mission as the crystallization of an international consensus against Assad.
Of course, this was never the case as obvious, for one, from the wildly divergent interpretations of the Annan plan. Rather, what the administration had actually done was to force the plan onto skeptical allies who had taken forward positions against Assad, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. And while the White House was still maintaining that the “process needs to play itself out before we judge it a success or a failure,” these allies were publicly airing their displeasure and skepticism
The problem is that the administration never had a Plan B. As one US official told ForeignPolicy.com yesterday, “Our allies were coming back to us and saying ‘What's your next move?,' and we were forced to admit we didn't have one.”
Although Secretary Clinton spoke of “additional measures,” in her interview, Ambassador Rice made clear that those did not go beyond “economic and political” pressure. It is for this reason that Annan’s spokesperson, Ahmad Fawzi, confidently declared that the US “is leaving it in the hands of Kofi Annan, as is the rest of the world… We’re the only path in town. There is no alternative.”
Of course, there are plenty of alternatives that influential US Congressmen and US allies have articulated and urged the administration to pursue. The consistent calls by Riyadh and Doha for arming the opposition have been an obvious attempt to get the US to assume leadership. In the same vein, Turkey's probing of the administration on the establishment of a buffer zone was intended to secure a commitment of US backing. The problem, as the administration official told ForeignPolicy.com, is in the approach of the White House, which “does not want to become so heavily involved in the Syria conflict, for example by directly arming opposition fighters.” This posture, the official explained, was confusing allies like the Turks.
American prestige has already absorbed an enormous blow as a result. The longer the administration persists in this failed approach, the worse the damage to US credibility and interests, as the White House shows that its word means little. In that sense, Ambassador Rice’s tweet unfortunately was accurate.    
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

  • Rami

    Seems to me that'Uninformed" is really uninformed

    May 6, 2012

  • Beiruti

    For "uninformed' to have made his post, Tony must have struck a nerve with his article.

    April 20, 2012

  • uninformed

    Another incredibly uninformed article about matters misunderstood by this writer. It's one thing to condemn the atrocities of the Syrian regime, but quite another to be ignorant about foreign policy and national security, and what goes on behind the scenes. I really do not see the point of Tony's crusade, other than it being an attempt to discredit this administration for reasons unrelated to their handling of foreign policy (the part Tony claims insight into). Too bad.

    April 19, 2012

  • Beiruti

    Tony's article is spot on. This is the greatest failure of the Obama Administration. While one may argue that the US has bigger fish to fry with the Russians and Obama is parlaying the Syrian file to Putin now, in exchange for a larger prize from the Russian down the road on some broader policy, what that other thing may be has not been articulated. From the "show cards" all we can see is the US defaulting on its duties in deferrence to the Russians with nothing coming to the US in return. Its a default pure and simple. And the US has interests. Simply by changing the policy, arming the FSA, the signal will be sent, with nothing more that would change Iranian conduct as well as Hezbollah conduct and what issues are more pressing in the region right now than Iranian nuclear development and Hezbollah's weapons being used to obtain strategical leverage against the US and Israel?

    April 19, 2012