Samantha Power. (Wikimedia Commons)
Whether or not the Geneva conference on Syria, backed by both the United States and Russia, takes place—it’s now been pushed back from June to July—the Syrian rebels are not acquitting themselves well. They’ve now refused outright to attend, unless the United States and the Europeans supply them with heavy weapons, a kind of blackmail that won’t sit well with their backers in Washington and elsewhere. General Idris—the commander of the rebel forces, who just had a session with John McCain, who no doubt encouraged him in his anti-Geneva stance—is saying this:
“If we don’t receive ammunition and weapons to change the position on the ground, to change the balance on the ground, very frankly I can say we will not go to Geneva. There will be no Geneva.”
McCain, of course, is incessantly demanding direct American involvement in the war.
Meanwhile, the government of President Bashar al-Assad is making important military gains on the ground while telling the Russians that they’ll attend Geneva.
In a perfect world, Secretary of State John Kerry would read the riot act to the rebel leaders, explaining not-so-patiently that there will be no military solution to the civil war in Syria. Kerry’s message ought to be that the United States will cut off the rebels if they don’t attend Geneva. Further, the United States must start putting intense pressure on Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the rebels’s main arms suppliers, to slow down the weapons pipeline, especially to the ultra-Islamists and the Al Qaeda types who are the rebels’s strongest fighters. And Kerry ought to make it clear to the world that Iran will be welcome in Geneva, since Tehran has great influence over the course of the war in Syria.
Meanwhile, Kerry will have to deal patiently, as well, with Susan Rice, the new US national security adviser to-be, and with Samantha Power, the yet-to-be-confirmed replacement for Rice at the United Nations, both of whom are likely to push for more American support for the beleaguered anti-Assad forces.
Perhaps realizing that the alliance between Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the so-called Nusra Front, had resulted in poor public relations for Al Qaeda, the organization’s top leader—Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as chieftain—has annulled the marriage of Nusra and AQI. According to Reuters:
“The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is canceled, and work continues under the name the Islamic State of Iraq,” he said in the letter posted on the website on Sunday night. “The Nusra Front for the People of the Levant is an independent branch” of al Qaeda, Zawahiri said, urging both groups to “stop arguing in this dispute, and to stop the harassment among the Muslims.”
Zawahiri’s intervention won’t do anything to remove the stain of Al Qaeda extremism from the Syrian revolt, however.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of speculation about what the addition of the two liberal interventionists, Rice and Power, will mean to the decision-making of the Obama administration. In the Los Angeles Times, the headline is: “At White House, liberal hawks ascend.” Says the paper:
Their promotions hints at a new source of fireworks in a growing foreign policy battle in the Obama administration. Liberal hawks and doves in the White House and the Democratic Party are struggling for hearts and minds over whether it makes sense to intervene in Syria and to attack Iran.
But Neil McFarquhar, in The New York Times over the weekend, is fairly certain that the Rice-Power axis won’t make much difference:
Could the fact that both Ms. Rice and Ms. Power have taken very public stances on the importance of humanitarian intervention mean they will shift American foreign policy in that direction? The consensus among experts and their ex-colleagues is that not much will change. Ms. Power’s appointment represents continuity, and neither of them differed publicly with President Obama on foreign policy issues.
James Mann, too, says in The Washington Post that Power, for all her tough talk about preventing genocide, won’t have a major impact at the UN, and that Obama’s own anti-interventionist instincts will hold sway:
Power is likely to get the opportunity to put these ideas into effect at the United Nations. In her daily work, proposals for U.S. military intervention will seem remote, if not entirely irrelevant.
Let’s hope he’s right. But I’m a lot less sanguine than McFarquhar and Mann, and a lot more worried that the pressure to intervene in hotspots from Africa to Syria to Iran will increase once Rice and Power settle into their new positions later this summer.