As the Syrian crisis intered its fifth year, US policy towards the conflict seems to be as confused and weary as it has ever been. The statement by Secretary of State John Kerry, that his government was willing to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to bring the conflict to an end, was refuted by another State Department official. Marie Harf, the Deputy Secretary of State, released a statement after Kerry’s comments, pointing out that US policy towards Syria has not changed and that Al Assad would never be directly involved in negotiations.
Indeed, for many observers, Kerry was reflecting the thoughts of US President Barack Obama when he expressed his willingness to engage Al Assad instead of repeating the painfully predictable US policy-line that “Al Assad has lost legitimacy and that he does not have a place in the future of Syria”. In fact, the Obama administration was quite comfortable in dealing with the likes of Al Assad’s regime before the breakout of the Arab Spring. Unlike his predecessor, for example, Obama did not really want to get involved in the business of changing the world or “making it a better place by hunting down the bad guys”. Obama thought that bad guys were not necessarily bad for the US. He subsequently opted for engaging them directly and openly to maintain stability in the Middle East, a vital interest for the US. He hence retained secretary of defence Robert Gates from the outgoing Republican administration, who is also a key author of the Baker-Hamilton report. The Baker-Hamilton report was the result of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), a ten-person bipartisan panel appointed on March 15, 2006, by the US Congress, that was charged with assessing the situation in Iraq and the US-led Iraq War and making policy recommendations. The ISG was led by co-chairs James Baker, a former Secretary of State (Republican), and Lee Hamilton, a former US Representative. The report’s key recommendations were that the US should return to its traditional pragmatism, accept the world as it stands, and share the burden with friends and engage foes.
Obama embraced the findings of the ISG and decided to heed the call. In Syria, he reversed the policy of his predecessor and opted for engaging rather than isolating the regime of Al Assad. His policy culminated in late 2010 by sending his ambassador back to Damascus. The Arab Spring forced him to reconsider this policy, however, but to an extent. The position of the US towards the Syrian revolution was formulated in a context where the US was not working on promoting change, but equally did not attempt to prevent it. The US tried rather to adopt a strategy that would not draw the US into direct military intervention; yet, it would enable it to control the outcome.
The Geneva Declaration of June 30, 2012, was an interpretation of this general foreign policy trend, allowing change to take place, but under favourable conditions; i.e. forcing Al Assad out, but preventing the collapse of his regime. The fragmentation of the Syrian opposition, the dominance of Islamist trends within it, the absence of an acceptable alternative to the Al Assad regime and America’s bitter experience in Iraq, have made the US lean towards seeking a political solution that would preserve the current structure and institutions of the Al Assad regime — the security apparatuses and the army in particular. Kerry has repeatedly stated that “We must guarantee the preservation of the state institutions”.
These factors have in fact defined the US position towards the Syrian revolution, but have also hindered the emergence of a coherent policy. While the US was absolutely intent on not allowing any party to win a decisive military victory, it was not working hard enough to find a political solution to the conflict.
No serious pressure was put to force the regime to accept a satisfactory settlement, for example. On the contrary, the Obama administration has always given the impression that Syria is not a US priority even after the rise of Daesh (self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and its control of large swath of Syrian territory in the east and northeast of the country, hence giving the message that the regime and its regional allies can still try to win this conflict militarily.
Instead of adopting a proactive approach with multiple options in mind to end the unfolding human and political disaster in Syria, US policy has, in fact, been left open to personal interpretations, resulting in catastrophic consequences.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is a Syrian academic and writer.