Michael Young

True or false?

America is deeply distrusted over Syria, here’s why

US Secretary of State John Kerry gestures during a press conference closing the Geneva II peace talks on January 22, 2014 in Montreux. (PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP)

A news item appeared this week that has created great confusion. In an article on the front page of Al-Hayat, Ibrahim Hamidi, who covers Syria for the newspaper, wrote that unnamed Syrian opposition figures had revealed a major shift in the Obama administration’s attitude toward resolving the war in their country.

According to Hamidi, the opposition sources, who had met with the American secretary of state, John Kerry, in Riyadh, told of how they had been pushed to swallow a “poisoned cup.” They were asked to consent to concessions in the run-up to negotiations for a solution in Syria—now scheduled for January 29 in Geneva.

Kerry allegedly said that the opposition had to accept the establishment of a “unity government” in Syria, not a transitional authority as outlined at the Geneva Conference of 2012. President Bashar al-Assad could, after a transitional phase, stand for presidential elections, though Geneva had outlined the transition as a mechanism to facilitate Assad’s removal from office. Kerry is also said to have told the opposition that it would have to integrate into its delegation several representatives of the “internal opposition” in Syria, viewed as close to the regime, as well as the head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), Saleh Muslim.


Hamidi’s points were echoed in a series of tweets by Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi analyst with close ties to the Saudi regime who also is a regular contributor to Al-Hayat. All this signaled an apparently radical turnaround in Washington’s position, one supposedly accompanied by threats that unless the Syrian opposition accepted the conditions, they would no longer receive outside assistance.


Munzir Makhus, a member of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, appeared to confirm part of the story on the record, saying that Kerry had warned the opposition against boycotting the Geneva meeting or they would lose their allies. A boycott still seems possible because there remains strong disagreement between Russia and Saudi Arabia over the composition of the opposition delegation.

But is it really true that the Americans had adopted a new attitude toward Syria? In a Washington Post article, Kerry was quoted as denying he had ever made the statements the Syrians had accused him of making. “It’s just not what was said,” he told reporters in Laos. “The position of the United States is, and hasn’t changed, that we are still supporting the opposition politically, financially and militarily,” Kerry said.


That there should have been such a disconnect between what Kerry purportedly said, and what the Syrians saidthey heard was very odd. Either the opposition was lying, or Kerry was. However, many people will, rightly or wrongly, assume the latter, if only because the United States has been so ambiguous with regard to the Russian intervention in Syria and to Bashar al-Assad himself.


After initially criticizing the Russians, the Obama administration has, since then, been coordinating with them, while looking the other way as their forces bomb the so-called moderate opposition at will. Both have also developed ties with the PYD and with the main Kurdish fighting force in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has been a valuable ally against ISIS.


And in the negotiations over a resolution in Syria, the Americans have themselves made concessions to the Russians. For instance in December, Kerry made it clear that Assad’s departure was no longer a precondition for a Syrian peace process. Just before that the Americans had reportedly urged the Syrian opposition, who were preparing to meet in Saudi Arabia, to use “creative language” when discussing Assad’s fate.

The American-Russian rapprochement is no secret. American columnist David Ignatius, who often reflects the administration’s mood, recently wrote: “Russia is emerging as an essential diplomatic and security partner for the U.S. in Syria, despite the Obama administration’s opposition to Moscow’s support for President Bashar Assad.” For Ignatius, “an administration that has had trouble living with President Vladimir Putin, especially after his actions in Ukraine, finds that it can’t live without him in Syria.”

All this does not indicate that Kerry’s denial of an American reversal on Syria is untrue. However, it explains the mistrust of Washington not only among the ranks of the Syrian opposition, but also in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, major backers of Assad’s foes. To them the Obama administration is using doublespeak when it comes to Syria, its main purpose being to end the conflict there on any terms whatsoever so as to focus its attention on defeating ISIS.

It’s difficult to interpret American actions otherwise. At no point during the conflict in Syria has President Barack Obama shown particular interest in the Syrian dimension of the war. The United States has been unmoved by the terrible human casualty toll, uninterested in bringing Assad and his entourage to justice, and thoroughly indifferent to the myriad violations of human rights, international justice and the laws of war in Syria.

For a president who claimed in the 2015 National Security Strategy that he sought to use American leadership to advance “universal values, and a rules-based international order,” Obama has struck out on all counts. American leadership has been invisible, while universal values and a rules-based international order have never seemed so elusive. That no one believes Obama any more may explain why the Syrian opposition was so skeptical about Kerry; or why Kerry perhaps felt he had to dissemble about his true aims in Syria.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling.


US Secretary of State John Kerry gestures during a press conference closing the Geneva II peace talks on January 22, 2014 in Montreux. (PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP)

Kerry allegedly said that the opposition had to accept the establishment of a “unity government” in Syria, not a transitional authority as outlined at the Geneva Conference of 2012."

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Incidentally, President George W Bush did the same thing in Egypt with President Mubarak. After decades of managing Mubarak from a distance, US policy maintained a middle ground between vague criticisms of Mubarak's persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood on one hand, and needing him to keep peace with Israel. After September 11, Bush threw away that balance and wholeheartedly supported Mubarak because now the US and Egypt had two shared interests: Fighting Islamic radicalism and preserving peace with Israel. Human rights and Mubarak's dictatorship became secondary considerations. In Syria, a similar shift, more subtle to be sure, is occurring in US policy on Assad. With the rapprochement with Iran, there is no doubt that Assad is right now the West's better alternative to a fragmented and ineffective so-called "moderate" opposition on one hand, and the Islamist terrorist forces on Syrian soil. Mubarak was no angel, and neither is Assad. Bush sided with Mubarak. Why should the US not side with Assad in fighting Islamic terrorism?

    January 29, 2016

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    False.... and tiresome. Can someone explain why is the focus always on what America should do or should have done in Syria? Other than the broader ethical responsibility that the US may have, along with every single other nation on earth, vis-a-vis Syria, what compelling rationale exists in the minds of people like Michael Young to expect America to do what other nations also should or can do? The Obama administration has from the start refused to be enmeshed in Syria, and rightly so. It may have hesitated or appeared uncertain, but that is precisely because it did not, and does not, want to get involved in Syria. Of course, the human tragedy is unfolding right there, but since when is America a superhero to rush and save the day in Syria? Regardless of whether Assad is a monster - some of us knew this long long ago when his father before him, then him, burned Lebanon to the ground with everyone applauding him - there is no such thing as a Syrian opposition. The fact that all these people with various groups and names and objectives can't even agree to form a unified front against Assad means that they are likely to be just as cruel and barbaric as Assad is, and as such they do not deserve anyone backing them, let alone dying for them. The Syrians and all the Arabs that supported the Assad dictatorship for 40 years have only themselves to blame for the Syrian situation. Please stop the tiring and cheap tirades against Obama, backed - as you admit - by second hand assumptions, tweets, and hearsay about some cryptic lie that his administration may have done.

    January 29, 2016