After 70,000 Syrians have paid with
their lives in the foreign induced conflict in Syria, why has the
American perspective changed? Even so, it was nice to see
Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei
Lavrov embrace each other in Moscow. Kerry also met President
Vladimir Putin who, in Kerry’s presence, asked Lavrov to take over
the task of navigating the Syrian crisis towards a peaceful
At about the same time two years ago, Hillary Clinton, with an
imperious wave of the hand, was demanding that “Assad, get out of
the way”. Why then would the US, and its allies, accept the Geneva
Communiqué which envisages an end to violence and creation of a
transitional government which could include members of the Assad
If Israeli air strikes inside Syria and allegations of use of
chemical weapons either by the regime or the opposition had not
captured recent headlines, there would be pretty little for Kerry
to discuss with the Kremlin leadership. What transpired in Moscow
under the circumstances appears to be an endorsement of the
Lavrov-Assad line on Syria which has, in essentials, remained
unchanged over the past two years.
What was the purpose of Israeli air strikes on Syrian targets?
They were a reminder that the splintered opposition needed help
because it was no longer able to hold ground.
The strikes came in the wake of an anti-Assad regime whisper
campaign about chemical weapons having been used. Just when this
rumour began to acquire wings, appeared from within the ranks of
an otherwise supine UN, a Carla del Ponte, member of the UN panel
investigating the conflict in Syria. She threw a monkey wrench
into the the chemical weapons propaganda.
She said there were “strong, concrete suspicions” that Syrian
rebels had used poison gas. When the plot boomeranged, a shiver
went up and down many spines. White House spokesman Jay Carney
introduced a delightful bit of ambiguity: “We are highly skeptical
of any suggestion that the opposition used chemical weapons.” He
banished skepticism in the next observation: “We think it highly
likely that the Assad regime was responsible...” This is one White
House attitude and Kerry’s in Moscow quite another. Which one do
Diplomatic grapevine has been abuzz with President Barack Obama’s
telephonic exchange urging Putin to restrain Damascus from any
retaliation which would cause the crisis from spiralling out of
control. The UN has been told that Syria had the right to
retaliate but it would choose its moment. Damascus has declared it
can no longer restrain Palestinian resistance along Israeli
borders on the Golan Heights.
The Kerry-Lavrov duet has, after months of stalled co-operation,
announced an international conference, possibly by May-end, to
bring the civil war to a close and pave the way for a peaceful
settlement. The question that will plague the conveners of the
conference will be: how to create a coherent delegation out of 148
Assad will be able to put together his representation quite
easily. This contrast will cause deep consternation in
Congressional circles in the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey,
Britain, France and Israel.
The idea clearly is for Washington and Moscow to be armed with a
positive document on Syria at the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland
On current showing, there is no coherence between the White House
and the State Department even on the issue of chemical weapons in
Syria. Place the US Congress, Pentagon, CIA in this calculus, and
parties arrayed behind the Syrian opposition have enough time, up
to mid June, to wreck whatever architecture Kerry may have in mind
for the G8 summit to consider. Who knows, the arch wrecker may be
within that August body itself.
Remember, Iranian presidential election results will be out June
14, by which time Riyadh, Doha, Ankara and Tel Aviv will have
worked themselves into a frenzy about their red-hot Syrian project
taking a disastrous route to peace. Are Obama and Kerry strong
enough to withstand pressure from the rest of the Washington
establishment plus these countries and Turkey.
On what the future portends, I shall reserve judgement at least
until the summit in Northern Ireland. I am even willing to wait
until the Obama-Putin summit in Moscow in September.
After Ben Ali in Tunis and Hosni Mubarak in Cairo became
casualties of the so-called Arab Spring, King Abdullah of Saudi
Arabia emerged from convalescence in Europe and, along with the
Emir of Qatar, took charge. They rented NATO for the Libyan action
and coaxed Washington and Europe to help stoke internal conflict
in Syria. This column had argued then why Assad would not fall.
Well, he is not about to fall quite yet.
But Riyadh and Qatar have been encouraged to invest too much in
the conflict to call back the dogs of war. They have nothing to
show as a trophy except a destroyed nation. They face a greater
existential crisis today than they did in February 2011.
Saeed Naqvi is a
senior political commentator. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org