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.)
Idris is under a lot of pressure, especially from the United States, to unify the rebel fighters, but that’s easier said than done:
First Idriss has to impose discipline on his own officers and improve the reputation of the military council, which have proved less effective than hardline Islamist units and has struggled to assert its authority on the battlefield. … Convincing skeptical Syrian rebels—who see Idriss as more of a spokesman and arms procurer than genuine leader—is a tougher challenge, and increasingly urgent as Assad’s forces win back rebel ground.
Despite the worrisome decision by the Obama administration to give arms to the rebels, there’s a slight silver lining. The arms, it seems, will be limited to small arms and ammunition, which won’t be enough to turn the tide of battle on the ground, which seems to be tilting in favor of Assad in recent weeks. Obama himself seems reluctant to tout the American intervention in Syria, and of course he refused to announce it himself last week, instead sending a lowly White House functionary out to tell the press. And so far, at least, both Obama and Kerry seem committed to the Geneva talks, despite the enormous difficulties that lie in its path.
Still, as I’ve written in the past, Obama is on a very, very slippery slope in regard to Syria. One false step and he’ll go tumbling down into the quagmire of yet another Middle East war—and unlike Iraq, which had zero allies, Syria has the backing of Russia, Iran and Iraq, along with Hezbollah.
Having won control of a strategic town, Qusayr, near the Syrian border with Lebanon, earlier month, Assad’s forces are making gains in other parts of the country, including around the Damascus, as Reuters notes:
Opposition fighters once threatened Assad’s dominance of Damascus but are now struggling to repel his forces, who have been emboldened by winning a strategic border town further north and have help from Lebanese Hezbollah militants and Shi’ite Iraqi fighters. … Assad’s forces are also advancing on the Sayyeda Zainab district, which houses an important Shi’ite shrine and has been used as a rallying call for Shi’ite fighters.
Another Reuters story notes that France is considering supplying the rebels with “heavy weapons” —without noting what that means, exactly—but it, notes that the government’s forces are making big gains in Syria:
Assad’s troops have since turned their attention to retake Aleppo, the Damascus suburbs and parts of the south of the country where they have been mired in a bloody stalemate with rebels for nearly a year.
Suddenly, it doesn’t look so good for the anti-Assad forces. Until recently, the fall of Assad was considered—using George Tenet’s words, in another context—a “slam dunk.” Perhaps Obama believed that Assad would collapse easily, just as the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia did. Instead, having put America’s prestige on the line over Syria, Obama now faces the possibility of a humiliating defeat at the hands of Assad, Russia and Iran.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post has run an important piece by Colum Lynch and Joby Warrick calling into question the basis for Obama’s claim that Syria has used sarin gas against the rebels. Here’s the lede of that piece:
Despite months of laboratory testing and scrutiny by top U.S. scientists, the Obama administration’s case for arming Syria’s rebels rests on unverifiable claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people, according to diplomats and experts.
Greg Mitchell reminds the administration—and the media outlets that continue to report its claims without question—that the public still opposes intervention in Syria.