Tony Badran

Adjusting after Geneva

The Obama administration is using its post-Geneva Syria policy as a means to depict Iran as a "responsible" actor

Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hegel speak at the Munich Security Conference on February 1

Now that the opening round of the Geneva conference for Syria has concluded in spectacular failure, the Obama administration appears to be pursuing a twofold strategy. It has redefined its objectives and priorities while also moving to engage Iran on Syria. While involving the Iranians is something the administration has sought for a while, bringing Iran into the process has less to do with Syria than with protecting the American president’s pursuit of detente with Tehran. 


When it comes to its aims in Syria, the White House has been messaging that the priority for the US now is to combat Al-Qaeda-linked groups and to ensure that humanitarian relief reaches the Syrian population. At the Munich Security Conference last week, Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed that this was indeed the direction of US policy. Kerry spoke to a congressional delegation, and, according to two Senators present at the meeting, Kerry emphasizedunprompted, that "the Al-Qaeda threat is real. It is getting out of hand." Kerry's statements are in line with the White House's public messaging campaign, amplified last week by James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence. Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Syria was "becoming a center of radical extremism and a potential threat to the homeland." 


Kerry, in his discussion with the delegation, reportedly spoke of the need to form a "coalition against Al-Qaeda." It wasn't clear who Kerry thought would be in this coalition. But the White House's preference has been an open secret: working with the regime against jihadi extremists. The point of telling this to the congressmen, with the awareness that some were likely to leak it, is to mainstream the administration's shift in Syria.


The shift also involves bringing Iran into the Syria process. In Munich, Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and reportedly sought Iran's help in relieving the humanitarian situation in Syria. The focus on humanitarian aid not only deep-freezes all talks on a transition of power in Syria, but also serves to bolster the White House's approach to Iran, showcasing how Iran could play a “constructive role.”


Zarif told Kerry that he wasn’t authorized to discuss Syria. But Kerry’s encounter was hardly the administration’s first attempt to probe the Iranians’ willingness to help in Syria. In fact, one of the administration’s former point men on the topic, Ambassador Fred Hof, disclosed at a panel last week that he has been involved in track-two discussions with Iranians close to Zarif and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as well as to “those elements of Iran’s national security establishment active on the ground inside Syria.” Hof relayed that all but one of his interlocutors “expressed interest in the proposition that Iran should, in its capacity as one of the world’s great civilizations, work with the United States and others to mitigate the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.” They also dangled the possibility of pressuring Assad “to grant U.N. humanitarian agencies full access and full permission to operate anywhere they wished in Syria.” Hof expressed his hope that American diplomats would explore this matter with their Iranian counterparts.


Other than keeping the Geneva process alive, the White House has another reason to enlist Iranian assistance on humanitarian aid in Syria. President Obama has made reaching a deal with Iran the central gambit of his foreign policy. Obama’s Iran policy elevated expectations for a potentially historic rapprochement with Tehran – expectations that the president has encouraged in order to keep skeptics at bay. Both the deal and any potential rapprochement are directly tied to the notion of Iran moderating its behavior and acting more responsibly as both countries seek to overcome decades of mistrust and hostility. The more Iran shows it can play a constructive role in regional affairs, the further it can thaw relations and the quicker it can rejoin the community of nations.


Helping with the humanitarian situation in Syria is a good way to showcase such responsible Iranian behavior. And this would be an opportune moment for it – not only because Geneva was a flop. Recently, the interim nuclear deal with Iran has come under strong criticism after Zarif and Rouhani made statements that directly contradicted the Obama administration’s claims about the deal. If the White House can show Iranian cooperation in Syria, it could prove that the policy of engagement is paying dividends, and that congressional critics shouldn’t derail this delicate process with more sanctions, as called for by Senators Robert Menendez and Mark Kirk.


Obama’s policy in Syria has been conducted according to the administration’s negotiations with Iran. It’s still unclear whether the bid to enlist the Iranians to get humanitarian relief to Syrian civilians will succeed. But all signs are that the administration is very much looking for ways to get Tehran on board in this effort – for reasons that go well beyond Syria. 


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

Subtle shifts. (AFP Photo/POOL/Brendan Smialowski)

"Kerry, in his discussion with the delegation, reportedly spoke of the need to form a 'coalition against Al-Qaeda.'"

  • jrocks


    February 6, 2014