The talks at the Geneva conference for Syria have gone nowhere. This is hardly surprising, as the regime does not even recognize the stated goal of the conference: the creation of a transition government that will not include Bashar al-Assad. Likewise, the attempt to salvage the talks and get a “quick win” by focusing on humanitarian relief yielded no results, after the regime conditioned its approval on measures designed to weaken the opposition militarily.
Despite these obvious failures, there is no sign that the United States is reconsidering its approach. On the contrary, Secretary of State John Kerry has stated clearly that the Geneva process would be a long, protracted affair. What accounts for the desire to persist in a policy that no serious observer believes will bring any tangible benefits?
The simple answer is that a policy designed to change Assad’s calculus would require the US to alter the balance of power on the ground. Time and again, President Obama has demonstrated that he does not regard the benefits of such a project to be worth the risks.
But there is more at work here than the mere difficulty of achieving the stated aims: the administration no longer believes in the goals that it claims to be pursuing. The shift in priorities at Geneva, away from transition of power to second-order objectives like humanitarian relief, is supported by an emerging consensus in the US foreign policy establishment according to which removing Assad from power is not just difficult but also undesirable.
This view was on clear display, for example, in a piece by Leslie Gelb and Frank Wisner, two pillars of the realist foreign policy establishment. In their piece, the seasoned diplomats called for “sharply and publicly” redefining US objectives, arguing for collaborating with the Assad regime against “jihadi extremism.” Presumably, the category signifies the Al-Qaeda-aligned franchises in Syria, but the term’s vagueness leaves it open to include any group that doesn’t buy into the idea of cooperating with the regime. Similarly, Richard Haass, another leading light of the foreign policy establishment who served as Director of Policy Planning at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration, also counseled focusing on humanitarian relief and “weakening radicals.”
This consensus obviously reflects prevailing views in the White House. Gelb and Wisner inferred that “perhaps” the White House “now realizes that it was too quick off the mark and too absolute” in calling for Assad’s removal, and “perhaps now” is “prepared to entertain a transitional working arrangement” with him. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal reported last month that “senior administration officials now privately talk about Mr. Assad’s staying for the foreseeable future and voice regret about the decision, in August 2011, to call for him to step aside.”
The idea of a partnership with Assad is a recurring fantasy that has deep roots in the American foreign policy establishment, well predating the Syrian uprising. Indeed, engaging Assad and involving him in a process, no matter how recalcitrant he proves, has been the default position for US policymakers since the days of Hafez al-Assad. This position cuts across the partisan divide: the Bush administration similarly collaborated with Assad, mainly on counterterrorism, though they knew he was sponsoring attacks against the US in Iraq. Instead of taking action, senior officials advised dialogue to see if an accommodation could be reached; this approach prevailed for most of Bush’s term, except for a short interruption in 2005-2006.
Then, instead of punishing Assad for his support of Hezbollah in the 2006 war, the administration looked the other way and invited him to take part in the peace process with Israel. This policy of engagement was precisely what the policy establishment, embodied in the 2006 bipartisan Iraq Study Group report, had recommended. For its part, the Obama administration, even before it came into office, made it known it would follow the same course, and continued engaging the Assad regime on counterterrorism and pursuing the Syrian-Israeli peace process.
The advocates of this policy always portray it as “realism,” when in fact it is simply the policy that follows the path of least resistance. Engaging the regime in Damascus represents the institutionalization of the avoidance of reality. Addressing the horror of reality in Syria requires serious action as well as renewed commitment to safeguarding US interests in the region, as well as those of our allies.
However, when the US position is to avoid action in Syria at all cost, Washington is faced with two options: turn its back on Syria entirely and watch people die, or take the easy way out through an illusory deal with the devil. When it comes to the immensely complex reality of Syria, falling back on Assad is the answer for those whose objective is to avoid the headache altogether. This position, billed as “realism,” can be more accurately described as an intellectual laziness that leads to very surreal proposals, of which Gelb and Wisner’s call on the administration to “pressure moderate rebels to buy into… humanitarian cooperation with Assad” is but an example. .
The Geneva conference itself is premised on such surreal scenarios, most notably with the assumption that Assad would negotiate himself out of power. But the fact that this will not materialize will not lead to the collapse of the conference: after all, as the administration is fond of repeating, Geneva is the only game in town. Besides, the shift toward secondary objectives also allows the administration to open the door to engaging with Iran over Syria. Once it becomes established that Assad’s exit is not on the table for the foreseeable future, the introduction of new priorities will facilitate calls to seek Tehran’s help in, say, convincing Assad to allow aid into besieged cities. In turn, this would be sold as Iran acting “responsibly” and “constructively,” on the path to “rejoining the community of nations.” Indeed, UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi expressed his belief on Tuesday that there would be renewed efforts to “cooperate with Iran in the future in order for it to undertake its role and assume its responsibility as an important state of the region.”
In the end, if it wasn’t before, it should now be obvious that Geneva is not a process that will end in Assad’s departure: instead, it is designed to formalize the status quo with Assad in power and to normalize dealing with him. The redefinition of objectives in Syria is geared toward that end, affording the White House the ability to walk back the position it staked out in 2011, a position it now regrets.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay