Has the Obama administration Given into Russia on Syria?

The joint communique issued by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this week regarding Syria has in retrospect raised eyebrows in the world press because it seems to adopt Russian, not American, rhetoric on the issue. The document called for an international conference on the crisis jointly sponsored by the US and Russia, and for a negotiated solution. The Russian insistence that there be no precondition of President Bashar al-Assad stepping down is implied. The abandonment of this precondition is a deal breaker for the Syrian opposition, who considers him a mass murderer for his brutal military assault on largely peaceful protesters, which pushed them into armed resistance. Although the Syrian crisis could have been resolved long ago if the ruling one-party Baath state would have been willing to move to free and fair elections, and to compete for parliamentary seats the way the Russian Communist Party does, there is no sign whatsoever of a willingness by top Baath officials to risk relinquishing power that way. The Baath bloody-mindedness has cost the country some 70,000 dead and 4 million displaced (in a population of 22 million) during the past two years.

Kerry’s sudden acquiescence in the Russian talking points is attributed to some by increasing US fears that the Syrian opposition in the north is increasingly being captured by the Nusra Front, a radical Muslim group that has declared allegiance to al-Qaeda. Likewise, President Obama appears to consider the charges of regime use of poison gas to be inconclusive.

The USG Open Source Center translated an outraged Italian commentary on the statement”

Italian Commentary on Kerry Rome Talks: Obama ‘First Big Loser’ in Syria War
Commentary by Gian Micalessin: “Obama’s Defeat: To Pacify Syria He Is in Cahoots With Putin — the Spring Is Over: No War on Al-Asad”
Il Giornale
Thursday, May 9, 2013
Document Type: OSC Translated Text

The first big loser in the Syrian war is Barack Obama. A With a death toll of 70,000 and after two years of dithering, the White House is at a total loss as to what to do, so it is going into reverse gear and placing its fate in the hands of “enemy” (Russian President) Vladimir Putin. Thus as the Pentagon sets aside both its plans to arm the rebels and its plans for a potential direct operation, the Democratic Administration is adopting a softer approach with Moscow and it is seeking Russia’s cooperation on getting negotiations going between the government in Damascus and the armed oppositionists.

Obama’s great surrender was sealed precisely in Moscow on Tuesday (7 May) night. A There, after a meeting with President Vladimir Putin preceded by a humiliating two-hour wait, Secretary of State John Kerry announced, in the company of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, that a decision has been reached to hastily organize a negotiating conference with the participation of both regime and rebel representatives. A “We wish to convene it as soon as possible, as early as the end of this month,” Kerry explained, making it clear that Russia will be doing everything in its power to persuade its Syrian ally to agree to dialogue, while Washington will take care of propelling the insurgents toward the negotiating table.

In short, in the space of a mere 24 hours, John Kerry has overturned the political stance that the White House has been pursuing for the past two years, even reneging on what seemed to be that position’s nonnegotiable “red line,” namely refusal to negotiate with a regime led by (Syrian President) Bashar al-Asad. A “The alternative is letting Syria head straight toward the abyss, or if not the abyss, then chaos,” the Secretary of State explained by way of a justification. A But justifications are not enough to conceal the weight of a diplomatic defeat without too many precedents — a defeat triggered by the errors of judgment made by an administration which was convinced that it could trust Qatar, and which ended up finding itself treading the path mapped out by Doha and backing groups linked to the worst kind of Islamic radicalism.

In contrast, pro-Baath journalist and editor Abdel Bari Atwan reacted with glee to the joint statement, as translated by the USG Open Source Center from his editorial in al-Quds al-Arabi:

Article Discusses Proposed International Conference on Syria, US, Russian Stands on Syrian Situation
Article by Chief Editor Abd-al-Bari Atwan: a(euro)oeFrom the Red Line to the White Flaga(euro)
Al-Quds al-Arabi Online
Thursday, May 9, 2013
Document Type: OSC Translated Text

After marathon negotiations that lasted until late the night before last, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart and host Sergey Lavrov announced that they agreed to call for convening an international conference on the Syrian crisis, to be attended by delegations from the regime and opposition, to reach a political solution based on the Geneva statement. This announcement could have been made only in the framework of a deal that has been reached between the foreign ministers of the world’s two superpowers at present.

It is obvious that the US Administration has made the biggest concession by adopting the Russian stand and the formula of a political solution that Russia proposes. Washington earlier announced its red lines and asserted that it would not revise its previous policies and stands on the Syrian crisis and added that it intends to supply the Syrian opposition with advanced modern weapons. But here it is now completely submitting to the Russian conditions and calling for a a(euro)oepeace conferencea(euro) that will recognize the Syrian regime’s “legitimacy” and will not repeat the standing phrase on the need for the Syrian regime to go as a condition for any negotiations with it.

There is absolutely no talk about “conclusive evidence” that the regime used chemical weapons against its people, nor is there a repetition of President Barack Obama’s favorite phrase that the Syrian regimea(euro)(TM)s days are numbered. Instead, the talk is about negotiations based on the Geneva statement that calls for the formation of a transitional government made up of a mixture of the regime’s men and oppositionists, without any mention of the future of the regime and its leader.

What is the secret word that caused this big change in the US stand and imposed this sudden retreat and shift from the military options that were put on the table before to diplomatic options to reach a political solution through negotiations between the rival parties that have resorted to weapons and bloody confrontations throughout the past two years?

This secret word is made up of seven letters, Israel, in addition to the fear for Israel’s existence within safe and stable borders, ridding it of the specter of war, removing the biggest danger that faces it, which is chaos, and the fear that Syria might become a base for Al-Qa`ida.

The Russian and US leaders might disagree over the regime of President Al-Asad and whether its continuation will be useful or not. However, they are in agreement on a common enemy, the jihadic Islam, which inflicted on them humiliating defeat in Afghanistan (the United States at the hands of Taliban and Al-Qa`ida and Russia at the hands of the Afghan mujahideen, and the United Statesa(euro)(TM) defeat in Iraq). And we should not forget Israel’s defeat in south Lebanon in 2006 and its failure to achieve victory in its war on the Gaza Strip late in 2008 because of the resistance factions’ steadfastness….

(Description of Source: London Al-Quds al-Arabi Online in Arabic — Website of London-based independent Arab nationalist daily with strong anti-US bias; URL: http://www.alquds.co.uk/)

There seems little doubt that the Obama administration took a big step back from the brink in Moscow this week, and that rumors of an American push to arm the rebels are, in the light of this diplomacy, overblown.

26 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole.

    The Germans sound quite worried. They say the delivery of S-300 air defence system to Syria will take place in the next 3 months, and this changes the strategic ballance in Middle East.

    link to welt.de

    “If the situation was not bad enough, now comes evil tidings from Moscow. Russia wants to supply the dreaded west air defense system S-300 to Syria, already in three months. The Russians put that to maintain power and ability to pay Assad and his regime.”

    No wonder Sayeed Nasrallah sounds happy. Bombing Damascus on Sunday starts to sound like a major error of judgement. It undermined Kerry’s position completely

  2. Or perhaps they just managed to buy a bit more time / maneuvering room.

    Odds are nothing whatever will come of it beyond photo ops for the new sec state, but by the time it implodes, the situation on the ground may have changed and could possibly offer better options than exist today. (Of which there currently appear to be none.)

    It gives the impression of commitment and action with no cost beyond some electrons and a bit of jet fuel, AND it keeps mccain and his whining off the front page.

    Remember, Juan, with this and every other administration, it’s all about politics, not policy.

  3. Lukoil opens office in Houston, TX(Moscow Times) the pipeline trail for Trans Arabian and Trans Iraqi pipelines goes through Syria, Lebanon? Putin already got the go ahead after Boston to secure Russian interests in the oil -stans. Now he can shape most pipeline outcomes with added benefit of detablising NATO neighbor, Tukey. Yahoo ticker initially noted an interim resistance leader being a resident of Dallas, TX. He had tickets to the opening of Bush library, perhaps?

  4. “There seems little doubt that the Obama administration took a big step back from the brink in Moscow this week, and that rumors of an American push to arm the rebels are, in the light of this diplomacy, overblown.”

    Good. We can do no good in Syria. Period. We are too ignorant of the dynamics on the ground. Stay out. Bring the focus back to where it is most urgently needed. Crumbling America.

  5. To all the GreatGameGreatPower addicts and apologists, here’s the deal: The US is in your world of scenarios the “pre-eminent power,” able to leap tall postulates of the Rule of International Law with facile ease. What, as you frame your thinking, is “it,” that is, the personification that you reduce the complex collections of power and interest and intentions and actors to in your Great Game of Risk ™, what is “it” supposed to do in this situation, since the assumption made is that pretty much whatever “it” does is ipso facto the actuation of “the national interest” (with little caveats to demonstrate that one is “serious”)? Given the binary choice repeatedly articulated elsewhere (the “Libya” option), which is supposedly either to “just” let the horrible mayhem go on, or give weapons and training and “intelligence” and “encouragement” to SOMEBODY, what is “it” supposed to do at this point in the drama? And bearing in mind that institutionally and operationally, the Security Apparatus has already lumbered into motion, and the rats and jackals are already In There distributing or “facilitating” weaponization and looking for “friends” among the enemies and ways to turn a profit off of conflict, in the best long-term WarIsARacket tradition.

    Is it possible, with all the momentum and pressure and independent skullduggery by the Serious Agencies and bits of the Global Military, to just STAND DOWN, to disarm those busy little parasites, to “stay out of it?”

    I guess the question sort of answers itself, doesn’t it?

    And the Gamers can continue with their sonorous pronouncements and justifications and rationalizations, protecting their Game which gets played out on the corpses and mashed communities of so many plain folks. Because theirs is the REAL world, after all, and hey, there’s no changing REALITY, is there?

  6. It doesn’t seem to me that the administration is doing anything more, or less, now (in material terms) than before. But with Kerry at the State Department, rather than Clinton, there is less rhythmic breast-beating and more traditional “diplomacy”.

  7. I don’t generally read much into instances where one head of state keeps another waiting, but I did with Putin stalling Kerry. Another Kursk emergency or mine disaster requiring immediate Putin action? Oops, not Kursk. Putin appears to have learned from his Kursk debacle and has been pushing his personal PR for the past year or two like a permanent male Cosmo personality series. Putin in the forest, Putin in the snow, Putin in a Formula 1 car, Putin with his dogs, Putin roughing it, Putin being cool, Putin in the sky somewhere, Putin in command in command, get used to it. Contrast this with Obama whose photos have graduated from tepid hoop competition to sober greying statesman implicitly making profoundly wise decisions. Except of course that Obama has not gained a reputation from any political sector as a wise or profound President. Although they shouldn’t, photos of heads of state make a difference. Reagan’s smile, Ike making a putt, Kennedy at Hyannis, Clinton glad handing, Nixon looking dour. Putin is shown as dynamic, Obama as anything but. These days Israel is also in the equation somewhere, pulling levers behind the curtain that mostly head west and not northeast.

  8. It’s called “calling their bluff.”

    The Russians have been using calls for a negotiated settlement, which will never be achieved, as cover for their pro-Baathist policy. So now we get to see exactly how much of a failure that track will be.

    • I think you’re right, but I hope you’re wrong. This thing will never be solved militarily – unless Russia and Iran build up Assad’s weapons. A negotiated settlement will work only if all sides accept it. Not very likely. Worth giving it a chance.

      • Today’s Guardian editorial shows the way things are moving.

        link to guardian.co.uk

        I think I favour the deescalation option. Both sides made mistakes and many people died for it.

        Arming more people with bigger better bangs only gets lots more people kiled and ensures spillover into Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan with the possibility of Turkey going up too.

  9. Two points:

    According to investigative reporters at the NY Times who researched the issue, the U.S., via the Central Intelligence Agency, is actively involved in arming the rebels by brokering arms deals and arranging for Arab governments’ military cargo planes to deliver weaponry to a Turkish airport. So it is clear that America is doing more than merely shipping non-lethal aid.

    Secondly, this article correctly confirms the fact that Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate with a large portion of its fighters from Iraq, now controls large swaths of territory in northern Syria and is commanding respect from a significant percentage of civilians in Syria as well as segments of the Free Syrian Army due to their battlefield prowess – a scary prospect for America.

    Syria appears deadlocked in a devastating civil war with no end reasonably in sight absent foreign intervention.

    • Reading your two points together leaves the impression that the US is involved in arming the Nusra Front (whether you meant to imply this or not), but that NYT investigation you mention also reported that the US was involved in the weapons shipments in order to steer them away from the Nusra Front and other jihadist groups, and towards more acceptable factions.

      It doesn’t seem to be working, though. The Nusra Front has only become a larger, more important faction of the resistance over the past two years.

  10. I’m not sure Kerry is selling out to Russia. The ‘Assad must go’ line began when there were 2,000 Syrians dead. At the time, the local coordinating committees said they’d be open to negotiation. Syria refused. Now The National Coalition of…Opposition Forces” says it welcomes “all international efforts calling for a political solution, which will achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people for a democratic state that begins with the removal of the Assad regime.”

    That formulation allows for the removal of the Assad regime to be settled in negotiation as part of achieving ‘the aspirations of the Syrian people’. Plus, either side can veto who is invited to the international conference.

    The whole idea may be pie in the sky but it’s not ‘selling out’ – yet! Especially if the Syrian opposition itself freely agrees to talk.

    • “the Syrian opposition itself” — there is an entity now that is identifiable as “the Syrian opposition?” Or is that trick of personification, that making up of monads, just one of the conveniences of geopolitical grand thinking, that allows one constructing strategies and theories to do a reductio that is so infinitely ad absurdam that the bonds to “reality” get shredded, however pretty and well-constructed the Big Picture might seem to be? All these little “actions,” these heavily self-justified or covert “national interest” activities, that seem insignificant, until all of a sudden some hair trigger concatenation of events leads to Sarajevo or Pearl Harbor…

      If I’m a general or a CEO in the MIC or some fella or gal who has become a National Leader and discovered that once I have all that power at hand, all that wealth to blow around, well hey, I can live out my life free from any kind of consequence that matters to me personally. It’s like what happens when an ordinary person suddenly is on the other side of the bars in the county jail, who discovers that freedom from responsibility and fear of consequences that regulated his behavior when he was just a “good citizen.”

      Not trying to pick on anyone in particular, just a general gripe about certain habits of thought and speaking that seem inexorably to surface and mislead. Not that I have any magic to sort it all out either, of course, but the way the Game is being played sure seems to be taking all of us, players and played-upon, down into a mutual black hole.

      Putin knew from his filthy past what he was in for, and Obama and Kerry and for that matter the last-generation Hillary Clinton? Where do they come from, what have they learned, and now they know the Secret Handshake and a key to the Executive Restroom, what will they do to the rest of us as they “grow into their positions” and, like metastatic cancers, out into the healthier tissues of the old body politic?

      • Like your customary flair here: “one constructing strategies and theories to do a reductio that is so infinitely ad absurdam that the bonds to “reality” get shredded” When I was a kid, we dissected sentences. I dissected them in Latin class. Someday I’ll try one of yours as a challenge.

      • Actually, JT, it seems to be the anti-interventionists who consistently define the Syrian opposition as a monad, pretending that they are all pretty much like the Nusra Front, while the pro-interventionists (and people in between, like the Obama administration) draw fine distinctions and speak in terms of the different factions.

  11. It is tacitly implied by the professor that the estimate of 70,000 dead are all the work of the government. Clearly both sides are killing each other with the terrorists now using sarin gas according to the UN. Interesting that the use of sarin gas by the rebels is all but ridiculed by much of the Western media and governments. However, the UN’s estimate of 70,000 dead is lapped up as fact, even though its is based on nothing more than hearsay and extrapolation.

    • “Clearly” the opposition are all terrorists (nice copy and pasting of the Assad regime’s propaganda office), and “clearly” the opposition has used sarin gas.

      A good way to tell when someone is bullshitting about Syria is the use of unambiguous terms like “clearly.” The situation there is about as clear as old mop water, and anyone who claims otherwise is selling something.

  12. It won’t matter basically because Earth is dying and fast.
    Kerry is in a bubble floating around being fed propaganda.

  13. Obama has been a disaster on Syria, as he has been a coward timidity in his dealings with Republicans in the Congress. He always says that ‘this is my red line’ but very soon after, breaks his own promise/assertion, and timidly bows down to pressures, whether it is from Russia, or is from Republicans in the Congress. And one does not have to be rocket scientist to understand what this whole theatrics of unfulfilled threats lead to: defeat and humiliation! And that’s exactly what is going to happen to Obama and unfortunately the United States.

  14. The sad thing is that the neutralization of the United States is the same as empowerment of the Israeli extremism.

  15. The oil bubble and its deflation in the next 1-2 years, I don’t know what Russia will do. Russia don’t know what Russia will do. Russia will be ambiguous or else there will be some sort of stability at last and Russia will be bankrupt again.

  16. The backtracking on Syria brings to question the ability of Arab allies of the US in the Middle East to put trust in America. They really should with cooperation of turkey look for alternative as Bashr get more murderous and ethically clear the whole strategic city of AlQassier of its inhabitants. I am sorry but the current administration has no policy in the region and the pivot towards Asia could finally let the region falls into the hands of Israel and Iran.
    Saleh

  17. To all the geopolitical whiz kids and wunderkindern who post apologies here for The Way Things Turn Out When The Game Is Played By Their Rules, who reassure us that Serious and Adult People are in charge and the machinery of government is working just fine and all those military expenditures, overt and covert, are Necessary To Our Freedom ™, riddle me this:

    “U.S. Currently Fighting 74 Different Wars … That It Will Publicly Admit”

    link to washingtonsblog.com

    What are the Legalisms and Doctrines and Policies and Strategies and Tactics that make all that Wise and Proper and Necessary, again? 1,000-plus “installations” or “locations” (can’t call them “bases” any more, Bagram is an “airfield,” e.g.) across the planet, what to “we” get out of that? I know what “we” get out of the very, very common (and so very, very rarely surfaced and prosecuted) stuff like this:

    “FIVE INDIVIDUALS ARRESTED, TWO CONTRACTING COMPANIES CHARGED IN BRIBERY CONSPIRACY RELATED TO DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE CONTRACTS IN AFGHANISTAN

    link to justice.gov

    (I especially like this one, as a former “troop” myself:

    ” For troops in Iraq, shower still may be fatal –
    Military races to inspect more than 90,000 facilities to reduce deadly threat”

    link to nbcnews.com

    90,000 “facilities” in Iraq? That’s a typo, right? Don’t you guys have editors? Oh, you stand by that number?)

    And Karzai is, snicker, avowedly “on the take,” complete with plain brown envelopes stuffed with cash.

    How stupid ARE “we,” how stupid will “we” continue to be?
    “We” get the famous Green Weenie.

    How’s that go, again? Oh yeak, “War is nothing but a racket.” link to ft.com

    A flood of complexified words comes next, to excuse and deny and defer, or maybe just {silence}, while the cancer grows silently bigger, and spreads…

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