Since he was appointed Secretary of State earlier this year, Senator John Kerry has been arguing that his main objective concerning the Syrian crisis is to force President Bashar Al Assad to change his calculations so that he becomes more inclined to talk to the opposition in pursuit of a political solution to the conflict.
Three months into this policy, it is difficult to argue that any change has really occurred in that direction. The conflict is as fierce and bloody as it ever was and Al Assad has not shown any sign of conciliation. On the contrary, Al Assad seems to have become even more convinced that he can win militarily. According to some of his Lebanese visitors, he still thinks that the Americans are not serious about removing him and that he can still persuade them to change their position on the conflict. The mixed messages coming out of Washington must have consolidated this perception in Al Assad’s mind.
During the first two months of the Syrian revolution — from mid-March to mid-May 2011— the US was counting on the regime to carry out reforms and meet the demands of the protesters. The American administration was therefore mute on the regime’s heavy-handed approach against protesters. In May, the White House imposed financial sanctions on Al Assad and a number of his close political and security officials. These sanctions were of symbolic value. They did not constitute real threat to the regime and were imposed only after Al Assad’s decision to deploy the army to quell the protest movement.
Given the limited influence the US had on Al Assad, the Barack Obama administration relied on Turkey, which at the time had good relations with both the Syrian regime and the opposition. Despite that, Obama had said — during a televised interview with CBS on July 12, 2011 — that Al Assad “has lost his legitimacy due to his inability to achieve democratic transition”, but he stopped short of calling upon him to step down. That statement was finally made on August 18, 2011, when it became absolutely clear that the efforts of the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, during a visit to Damascus on August 9, 2011, have failed to convince Al Assad to stop shooting at the protesters. The US had nevertheless adopted a more reticent position vis-a-vis the revolution thereafter.
The stance of the US towards the Syrian regime was even less decisive than the one adopted with former president Hosni Mubarak, who was asked to step down just ten days after the breakout of the Egyptian revolution.
Washington’s policy on the Syrian revolution was formulated in a context that while the US was not in favour of change, it was not attempting to prevent it either. The Obama administration was rather trying to adapt to change and possibly attempting to direct it in a more favourable way.
Clear discrepancies have thus emerged between the more supportive position of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and her ambassador in Damascus, Robert Ford, and the more reserved approach of the White House concerning the Syrian opposition.
On June 30, 2012, the Action Group on Syria reached the Geneva Agreement to end the Syrian conflict. The Agreement was never implemented, however, given the different interpretations on Al Assad’s role during the transitional period. While Russia has since insisted that the agreement did not say that Al Assad must go at the start of the transitional period, Washington argued that Al Assad cannot be a part of any political process. Since then, however, the US has not been mentioning the status of Al Assad. In the State of the Union Address on February 12, 2013, Obama did not even touch upon this topic. Instead, he pledged to “maintain the pressure on the Syrian regime and support the leaders of the opposition”.
There is no reason to believe that the Russians and Americans were not aware of the ambiguous language used to draw up the Geneva agreement. Both countries have in fact been well aware that different interpretations will emerge soon after the agreement was made public.
Last summer, Obama had rejected wholeheartedly a recommendation by some of his top advisers to supply weapons to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). His administration was almost united in favour of arming the Syrian opposition. Yet, he decided to go against the opinion of the State Department, Pentagon, CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, giving yet another indication of his hesitation to remove the Al Assad regime.
All this must have induced Al Assad to change his calculations, but in the opposite direction.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus.