In a previously unreported turn of events, it has now come to light that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her meeting with Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu last month, emphatically dismissed a number of forward leaning options on Syria that the Turkish top diplomat proposed to the Obama administration.
What this means is that Washington, which at one point subcontracted its Syria policy to Ankara, has now called the Turks off the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
According to well-informed Turkish and US sources, during his meeting with Secretary Clinton, Davutoğlu put forward a set of measures, including, among others, creating a buffer zone and/or a humanitarian corridor, as well as organizing and equipping the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The secretary of state responded in no uncertain terms that the Obama administration had no interest in pursuing any of these options. In fact, according to one account, Clinton told her Turkish counterpart no less than three times, “We are not there.”
This conversation fits well with the administration’s message to other regional allies, namely Saudi Arabia, against arming the FSA and pushing Washington’s preferred policy of going through the Russians, in an attempt to reach a “political solution” to the Syrian crisis.
There were hints of Davutoğlu’s agenda on the eve of his meeting with Clinton, along with some speculation about Turkish-US consultation regarding the creation of a safe zone in northern Syria. The idea was that Turkey was prepared to move in this direction following the failure to reach an agreement with Moscow, especially as this resulted in the Assad regime escalating its violence. The brutalization of Homs in February may have also finally pushed the Turks into action.
Apparently, the Turks, much like the Saudis, were looking to the first Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis as a possible forum to bypass the Russians and begin a more muscular effort, with US backing. The Saudis found out at the meeting that no such action was forthcoming, and withdrew in frustration, while publicly voicing their preference for arming the Syrian rebels.
The Turks got their answer from Secretary Clinton well before the Tunis gathering, and, according to the Turkish sources, were dismayed at the Obama administration’s extraordinary passivity and refusal to lead.
The message conveyed to the Turks was the same one made clear to the Saudis. According to one US source, when Davutoğlu ended up asking Clinton where the administration was on the issue, her response simply repeated the mantra about the Arab League initiative and going to the Security Council again for another go at the Russians. In other words, it was more of the same.
Not surprisingly, following the meeting, the Turkish foreign ministry pulled back, stating that direct intervention “is not on our agenda at the moment.” The Turks may have finally decided that more aggressive measures are needed. However, and despite the fact that Clinton may not have objected to Turkey moving on its own, Ankara remains reluctant to lead such an endeavor on its own, especially without explicit US approval and backing. In effect, therefore, the administration was actively blocking any such move on Turkey’s part, just as it held a red light to possible Saudi and Qatari plans to arm the FSA.
However, last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan once again floated the idea of a buffer zone, adding that the next Friends of Syria meeting, scheduled to take place in Istanbul on April 1, would come up “with very different results,” without elaborating further.
This goes back to the statement by an unnamed US official that the Obama administration would take a passive stand toward regional states arming the FSA “at the next Friends of Syria meeting.” This reading was reflected in Turkish press commentary as well, placing emphasis on the upcoming gathering in Istanbul as a possible turning point. Similarly, there has been speculation that the Saudis, too, are waiting for the April 1 meeting before beginning their efforts to arm the FSA in earnest. The purpose of such declarations could be to pressure the US to take more aggressive action.
If this reading is correct, then it would explain the Obama administration’s eagerness to support the Kofi Annan mission, as well as its praise for the non-binding UN Security Council statement issued yesterday. Secretary Clinton hailed the statement even when it contained no mention of Assad’s departure from power, no time constraints on Annan’s mission, and no specific or credible threat of action in case of Syrian non-compliance, to say nothing of how its call for dialogue between the regime and the opposition flies in the face of the US policy of regime change.
One could ask, then, what in the statement merited such enthusiasm. But what the statement did do is buy the administration more time to continue pressing its regional allies against any military options. Whether the Saudis and the Turks will decide to proceed regardless with their plans following the next Friends of Syria meeting, remains to be seen. But the administration’s latest move certainly has limited their maneuverability.
The Obama administration’s reasoning is simple. It calculates, rather correctly, that such regional efforts will likely end up drawing the US in down the road, one way or another. President Obama wishes to nip in the bud any possibility of this happening in an election year. And so, such regional moves were opposed in order for the president not to be forced to take action he’s adamantly intent on avoiding, regardless of the consequences.
As a result, the administration has found itself in the surreal position of siding closer with Assad’s Russian ally and at cross-purposes with its own regional allies – and, most significantly, in contradiction with its own stated policy of regime change in Syria.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.