Secretary of State John Kerry. (AP Images)
Secretary of State John Kerry is leaving on a trip that will take him, among other places, to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Lots on the agenda, of course, including the fitful beginning of the US-Taliban talks. But topping the list is the war in Syria, where Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the chief backers—and providers of arms—to the ragtag rebel forces battling the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Were American policy different, in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Kerry could avail himself of an opportunity to tell those two Persian Gulf kleptocracies to start winding down the war. Unfortunately, he probably won’t do that, since the US decision to start sending arms directly to the rebels means that the fighting will escalate. If Kerry was interested in the success of the oft-postponed Geneva peace conference on Syria, he’d suggest that Qatar and Saudi Arabia help establish a cease-fire on the ground in Syria if Russia would work with Assad to do the same on the other side. A cease-fire would create better conditions for peace talks and an eventual settlement.
Instead, Kerry seems to have a more limited message for Saudi Arabia and Qatar, namely, to ask them to funnel weapons solely through the supposedly moderate military force led by General Salim Idris, the US-backed military man who heads the so-called Supreme Military Council. (It’s not exactly “supreme,” since it doesn’t control the militant factions of the rebel movement, including the fighters allied to Al Qaeda and to Al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch.) In any case, according to a senior State Department official, who briefed reporters on the eve of Kerry’s visit:
“The goal of the meeting is to be very concrete about the importance of all of assistance … being fully coordinated and go through only the Syrian Opposition Coalition, specifically the Supreme Military Council run by General Idris.… So that is the fundamental goal of the discussion, and to be very concrete about that.”
The other part of the discussion, the State Department officials say, will be to ask Saudi Arabia and Qatar to help corral the various parts of the rebel movement—presumably not including Al Qaeda!—to settle on a specific, agreed-upon leadership group that is able to speak for the movement as a whole. That’s a tall order, since the squabbling and backbiting among the rebels has been unchecked since the start of the conflict in 2011.
Of course, if there is to be a Geneva meeting—and it now seems to have been postponed until September—the Syrian opposition forces will have to (1) unite, (2) agree on a leadership, and (3) agree to go to Geneva. Even General Idris, the most pliable of the leaders, has repeatedly said that he won’t attend Geneva unless his fighters get heavy weapons from the United States, including anti-aircraft missiles. (In contrast, Russia has won the agreement of the Syrian government to attend Geneva, if and when it happens.)