Does it appear to John Kerry, the American secretary of state, after what he heard the other day from Syrian President Bashar Assad, that the latter is changing his calculations, as had been hoped by Kerry and President Barack Obama?
The wager by Kerry and Obama on prompting Assad to change his calculations has not succeeded. They had hoped Assad would move toward a political solution based on the Geneva Declaration of 30 June 2012, and agree to the establishment of a transitional government with full powers, as mandated by that agreement.
More than six weeks have passed since American-Russian, and European-Russian, negotiations, and since these wagers were made. But what Assad said this week in a television interview indicates the opposite is the case. Every time the Syrian president talks, he goes back to even before square one, or before the uprising by the Syrian people broke out on 15 March 2011, taking at least a few new steps backward.
In the interview, Assad talked about consultations as a prelude to determining who would take part in dialogue, forgetting, and possibly part of a maneuver, that he had already convened a dialogue conference, chaired by Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa, which produced a number of recommendations. Then, members of opposition groups based inside the country met in Damascus to engage in dialogue and issued resolutions, which were not mentioned by Assad. The president used the word “traitors” to describe the opposition figures whom Kerry hopes will sit down and talk with representatives of Assad.
The Syrian president did not mention the Geneva Declaration, since all he talked about was terror, threatening Kerry himself and some countries that the “terror” in Syria will move to where they are. Assad did not even bother, even as a type of maneuver, to talk about the reforms that he claims to have carried out, as he earlier did. When acknowledging that the opposition has succeeded in controlling certain areas, Assad finds no embarrassment in saying that “the situation is better.” In short, he promised his people more killing, and the use of lethal weapons of destruction.
Kerry hoped that Russia was going to help convince Assad to alter his calculations; instead of doing this, Russia has gone back to defending Assad and attacking the countries that are sending a few armored vehicles to the opposition, along with night-vision goggles and bullet-proof vests.
Perhaps this will force Obama to change his calculations, as expected by some American diplomats. Obama has preferred to keep the Syria crisis at a distance from his administration, out of the obsession with avoiding a military entanglement after his withdrawal from Iraq, and amid preparations for a similar step in Afghanistan. Also, the US president’s priorities involve the domestic situation, i.e. improving the economy, and completing a new strategic move in the direction of the Pacific and dealing with China’s growing commercial, security and military influence. Obama is seeking to focus on these moves, while being content to prevent the Syrian crisis from spreading beyond the country’s borders or allowing weapons to fall into the hands of Islamist extremists and the Nusra Front. Also, he is content with guaranteeing that Syrian institutions do not fall apart, while the country’s minorities are protected, but neither he nor the international community is providing the tools to achieve these ends. Obama has only offered advice to western and Arab allies that if they arm the opposition, they should do so through the chief of staff of the rebel Free Syrian Army, General Salim Idris, because he is looked upon highly as a moderate, non-sectarian realist. This would strengthen Idris against the extremists and anarchists in the armed opposition.
But time is the enemy of the policy being adopted by Obama and American officials, who are noticing that the attempts made with Assad have not generated any “concern” by the latter to engage in a political solution to the crisis.
The opposition is taking over more territory in its war with the regime, although its capabilities are weak. But the regime is engaging in even more brutal airstrikes and the use of Scud missiles, along with its suspected use of chemical weapons. This is exacerbating the humanitarian crisis of Syrians displaced in neighboring countries, and boosting the influence of the Nusra Front and al-Qaeda. It is also increasing sectarian counter-reactions due to the acts of the pro-regime “shabbiha” paramilitary forces, while increasing the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah in the war.
Some of the fears and reservations on the part of Obama and his advisors have involved the prospect that the alternative to Assad would be extremism, as the time element worked to magnify these fears. Meanwhile, there has been not a single signal from President Vladimir Putin that Obama might expect his Russian counterpart's help in solving the crisis. Putin and his foreign minister begin every exchange with their American interlocutors as follows: “We can talk a lot about Syria, but Assad is staying.”
Obama will search for ways out of the crisis with his regional partners (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey) when their leaders are received at the White House and the State Department. For Obama, these exit strategies must be based on support for the FSA and not the extremists. But after Assad’s recent comments, will he become convinced that time is the enemy, and that it is now requiring him to change his calculations? Or, will he wait to make these changes after he meets with Putin in June? Obama can engage in something less than direct military intervention, which is logical for him to reject - everything from safe corridors for refugees to a lifting on the embargo on qualitative weapons for the Syrian opposition.
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