American secretary of state John Kerry met with Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, on Sunday. The rare high-level encounter with the septuagenarian autocrat underscores the strategic importance the United States attaches to his nation. Read more
Four years into Syria’s civil war, the United States may have come round to the view that President Bashar al-Assad needs to be part of a political solution.
Despite earlier insisting that Assad “must go,” Secretary of State John Kerry told CBS News on Sunday, when asked if the United States would be willing to speak with Assad, “We have to negotiate in the end.”
The State Department rushed to clarify that Kerry did not mean direct negotiations with Assad.
“By necessity, there has always been a need for representatives of the Assad regime to be a part of this process,” a spokeswoman said. “It has never been and would not be Assad who would negotiate. And the secretary was not saying that today.”
Maybe not. But it seems rather hardheaded to continue to exclude the Syrian dictator from any effort to mediate an end to the conflict in his country.
The United States believe Assad “lost legitimacy” when he started killing his own people but not all Syrians agree. Many minority Alawites and Christians have stuck with him for fear of a radical Sunni takeover. By Assad’s design, the peaceful protests that started in 2011 morphed into a fanatic, sectarian uprising that is dominated by violent Islamists — primarily the Al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front and the self-declared Islamic State. Both groups have been targets of American airstrikes in Iraq as well as Syria.
Nor do all powers agree that Assad should step down. Iran is his ally. To an extent, so is Russia. China still considers Assad to be Syria’s legitimate leader.
China and Russia have used their vetoes in the United Nations Security Council to forestall any international military intervention in Syria. If world powers are to find the much-desired political solution to the Syrian crisis, the views of China and Russia cannot be ignored.
Americans’ outrage is not without cause. Assad’s henchmen have indiscriminately and purposefully targeted civilian areas, using crude and deadly barrel bombs as well as chemical weapons, withheld food and medical aid from Syrians in need, executed rebel sympathizers and systematically raped, tortured and killed detainees. But Assad is also a major party to the conflict.
Unless the United States are willing to impose a “political solution” on Syria on their own — meaning, intervene in the conflict with force — it is difficult to see how Assad can be altogether sidelined.
Secretary of State John Kerry has sought to reassure America’s Arab allies that a nuclear deal with Iran will not involve a “grand bargain” with the Shia state for power in the Middle East.
Earlier this month, Kerry told Saudi officials in Riyadh that the United States will not take their “eye off of Iran’s other destabilizing actions in places like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula” in case world powers reach an agreement with Iran about its nuclear program.
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful but Arab and Western powers suspect it intends to build weapons. The United States is leading a diplomatic effort to secure a long-term agreement with Iran under which international sanctions on its oil-based economy would be lifted in exchange for assurances that it won’t build atomic bombs.
Saudi Arabia worries that the deal will be harbinger for better relations between its most important Western ally and Iran, its regional foe.
The Reuters news agency reported last year that Saudi princes were horrified to see President Barack Obama reach out to Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s newly-elected president who is considered to be relatively moderate in the West.
“The Saudis’ worst nightmare would be the administration striking a grand bargain with Iran,” said Robert Jordan, a former American ambassador to Riyadh.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked in a struggle for hegemony in the Middle East. The conflict is informed by contrasting religious views. The Saudi monarchy sees itself as the guardian of Islam and conservative Sunni hierarchy; Iran’s rulers consider themselves the vanguard of an Islamic revolution.
The struggle has played out across the region.
In Iraq, Saudi Arabia resisted Iran’s growing influence in Baghdad during the prime ministership of Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim who spent decades in exile in Iran when Saddam Hussein was in power.
In Syria, they support opposing sides in a civil war: Iran backs the minority regime of President Bashar al-Assad while Saudi Arabia, working with the United States, supports the largely Sunni opposition.
The Saudis also see Iran’s hand in the Houthi rebellion in their impoverished neighbor Yemen.
The oil kingdom is concerned that America may be willing to accept Iran’s strategic gains in these places in order to get a nuclear deal.
Obama’s negotiators have tried to keep the nuclear dossier separate from other issues but the emergence of a self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has made that more difficult. Iran and the United States both regard the Islamist militant group as a threat and both are involved in military operations against it, although they do not cooperate.
Saudi Arabia was previously alarmed when Obama withdrew his support from Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, another Sunni ally, in 2011 and stepped back from involving America in Syria’s civil war in 2013.
When Secretary of State John Kerry’s proposal for a ceasefire between Gaza militants and Israel reached the latter’s cabinet on Friday, it reportedly united liberals and nationalists in incredulity.
Little wonder. The proposal, if reported accurately, addressed only the concerns of Hamas, the Islamist terrorist organization that controls the Gaza Strip. An unidentified government source told Israel’s Channel 2 television that Kerry had “dug a tunnel under the Egyptian ceasefire proposal” — which Israel accepted and Hamas rejected last week — and accused the American diplomat of “completely capitulating” to Hamas.
According to Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, Kerry’s proposal called for a meeting in Cairo, the Egyptian capital, “to negotiate resolution of all issues necessary to achieve a sustainable ceasefire and enduring solution to the crisis in Gaza.” Such issues included “arrangements to secure the opening of crossings, allow the entry of goods and people and ensure the social and economic livelihood of the Palestinian people living in Gaza, transfer funds to Gaza for the payment of salaries for public employees and address all security issues.”
The hundreds of rockets that have rained down on Israel in recent weeks were apparently not mentioned in the text, nor were the dozens of tunnels Hamas has dug to launch armed raids into Israel.
Nor, for that matter, was the fact that Hamas is wholly dedicated to killing Jews (not just Israelis), is hiding weapons in hospitals and schools, using civilians as human shields and altogether responsible for the latest round of violence that began when members of its organization abducted and killed three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank last month.
Presumably this is meant by “all security issues”?
Israel can hardly be blamed for rejecting a ceasefire on Kerry’s conditions. While Hamas complains about closed border crossings, the fact is that Israel continues to let through food and medicine. It only blocks the sort of materials Hamas has used not to build homes and roads but rockets and tunnels. Yet Israel is expected to consider reopening the border? And allow the financing of “public employees” who are, in fact, terrorists bent on its destruction?
Hamas — which came to power through a 2006 election and a falling out with the more moderate Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas the following year — has done anything but “ensure the social and economic livelihood of the Palestinian people living in Gaza.” It has ruined the lives of the residents of Gaza by directing the territory’s limited resources toward waging wars on Israel it stands no chance of winning. Yet, as Kerry sees it, the onus is on Israel to make concessions? To end a war it did not start nor want?
Adding insult to injury, Kerry tried to involve Turkey and Qatar in mediating a truce. The prime minister of the first country, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has accused Israel of perpetrating “genocide” in Gaza and claimed it “surpassed Hitler in barbarism” by bombing suspected terrorist targets in Gaza, killing hundreds of Palestinians. The second country hosts the headquarters of Hamas in its capital and is the organization’s principal international backer. Kerry expects these countries to help make peace?
What Kerry asked Israel to do was not to negotiate or be prepared to enter into a reasonable compromise. What he asked Israel to do was consider surrendering. That it will never do.
For the past two and a half years, the Obama Administration has projected an aura of confidence to the public about its policy on Syria. Despite clamors from some members of Congress for more active military engagement in the conflict, officials have resisted the temptation to intervene on a mass scale, with a certain private assurance that the policy they have been following is the most responsible course of action the United States can take.
That confidence seemed to pay off when Bashar al-Assad agreed to dismantle and destroy his chemical weapons stockpile in order to avert the use of military force — an event that President Barack Obama brought up himself during his State of the Union address this week as an example of his administration’s foreign policy achievements.
But it appears much of that confidence is now being tossed aside by some of the Obama Administration’s most senior members. According to reporters Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg, Josh Rogan of the The Daily Beast and Fred Hiatt of The Washington Post, Secretary of State John Kerry is one of the officials beginning to doubt whether America’s policy in Syria is doing anything to push the Assad regime out of power.
In a private meeting with congressmen that was supposed to be kept confidential and off the record, America’s top diplomat apparently expressed doubt that the administration’s approach to the Syrian conflict is working. Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two of the most outspoken critics of Obama’s Syria policy, provided glimpses of Kerry’s reservations to the three reporters. Assuming that McCain and Graham are telling the truth, their remarks lead to one conclusion: John Kerry is doubting the very policy that he is tasked with carrying out.
Among Kerry’s chief concerns, according to the senators, is the steady growth and power of Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria as well as their aspirations to eventually use the country as a base of operations for attacks against the United States. “He openly talked about forming a coalition against Al Qaeda because it’s a direct threat,” Graham told The Daily Beast. “The first thing [Kerry] said is, ‘The Al Qaeda threat is real. It is getting out of hand.'”
Al Qaeda was not the only thing on Kerry’s mind. Senator Graham also told reporters that the secretary touched on every major issue that has been a focus of America’s policy in Syria, from the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons to the fact that peace talks in Switzerland have done nothing to slow down the war.
“He acknowledged that the chemical weapons [delivery] is being slow rolled; the Russians continue to supply arms [and that] we are at a point now where we are going to have to change our strategy,” Graham remarked.
The State Department denies that Kerry made any suggestion about changing strategy in Syria. That statement, however, may not make much of a difference in Washington DC where there has always been speculation that the secretary is not entirely on board with the president’s more restrained and cautious direction in the war. And, as often occurs in the capital, whether or not reports of Kerry’s doubts are accurate is less important than the fact that the reports are out there.
For lawmakers like McCain and Graham, who have argued for increased lethal support to the moderate Syrian opposition, airstrikes on strategic Syrian military facilities, the formation of no-fly zones and the establishment of humanitarian corridors, these accounts will serve as a useful piece of leverage to drive American policy in a more activist direction.
Secretary of State John Kerry experienced just how difficult it will be for the Obama Administration to get members of Congress on board with the interim nuclear agreement that was signed with Iran last month. Testifying before the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, Kerry was hammered for nearly three hours by Democrats and Republicans alike about the incomplete nature of the deal that was negotiated in Geneva, the $7 billion in sanctions relief that Iran is due to receive over the next six months and whether any final agreement would allow the Islamic republic to preserve a low level uranium enrichment capability.
Republican Ed Royce, the chairman of the committee, criticized what he saw as the administration’s soft negotiating strategy toward Iran, calling the agreement a much needed opportunity for the Iranians to receive billions of dollars without dismantling a single centrifuge.
“My concern,” the California congressman said, “is that we have bargained away our fundamental position in exchange for a false confidence that we can effectively check Iran’s misuse of these key nuclear bombmaking technologies.” The chairman went on to say that “Iran is not just another country. It simply can’t be trusted with enrichment technology, because verification efforts can never be foolproof. An agreement in which Iran purchases and returns spent nuclear fuel for energy generation is one thing but allowing enrichment is too high risk, going beyond the lines of realistic international control.”
New York’s Eliot Engel, the Democrats’ ranking member of the committee and typically an ally of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, echoed those critical remarks. “I want to make it clear that I have some serious reservations about this agreement,” he said. “First and foremost, it seems to me that — at a minimum — it should have required Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, as demanded by numerous UN Security Council resolutions.”
At times during the hearing, Kerry looked visibly strained about the profound skepticism that lawmakers were displaying toward the administration’s diplomatic outreach. Multiple members simply did not agree with the notion that the Iranian government should be allowed any domestic enrichment capability at all. Others, including Brad Sherman, a Democrat, complained to Secretary Kerry that the sanctions relief that had been promised Iran could jeopardize the sanctions regime altogether. “I was briefed by the administration on this deal,” he said, “and I was impressed a little bit less after I read it.”
Of all the members who asked questions during the hearing, only two were relatively supportive of the Geneva agreement.
Although Congress has consistently been more hawkish than the Obama Administration on the Iranian nuclear issue during the past five years, the fact that Kerry was confronted with so much doubt from lawmakers is a strong indictment of President Barack Obama’s relationships with key members of Congress. If the administration is to be successful in delaying more sanctions over the next six months, it will have to do a lot of convincing.
Thankfully for the president and his national-security team, Congress is highly unlikely to pass any additional sanctions against Iran this year. In a small victory for the administration, the chairman of the Senate’s banking committee announced that it would hold off on debating new measures for the remainder of the year, giving diplomats more time to negotiate a long-term nuclear accord. But if history on the Iran issue is any guide, Congress will not wait indefinitely for progress to happen.
Secretary of State John Kerry told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that “mythology and politics” should not be allowed to “cloud reality” when he was asked about President Barack Obama’s supposed reluctance to use force. Yet he went on to do just that.
Kerry argued that the president had “made his decision” to intervene militarily in Syria after the regime of Bashar Assad there had allegedly deployed poison gas against civilians in the suburbs of Damascus in late August. Kerry, rather than the president, was the administration’s most vocal advocate of military action, describing the gas attack at the time as a “moral obscenity” that had crossed a “global red line” — referring to Obama’s own “red line” laid out more than a year earlier when he had warned that the use of chemical weapons could trigger American intervention.
But, said Kerry, the president “also made the decision to respect the requests of many members of Congress to come to them. And guess what?” When he did, it were members of Congress, in particular opposition Republicans, who balked at taking action.
Which is true but the president knew that. Asking Congress for authorization — which, under American law, was not something he had to do — was itself an attempt to stave off the use of force after Britain’s Parliament had rejected a similar request from Prime Minister David Cameron — who is not allowed to take military action without the fiat of his legislature.
Obama had no choice but to pursue a punitive expedition in Syria to salvage his own credibility. He had, after all, set a trap for himself by declaring the “red line.” When, according to his own intelligence services, Assad used poison gas and crossed that red line, the president could not but intervene.
There was no indication he wanted to. Indeed, all indications were he didn’t want to and when Russia offered a way out — a deal under which Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons — Obama took it, seemingly without much hesitation.
Kerry may have been right when he claimed, “That deal would never have come about if the president had not made his decision to use force.” But he was in no way determined to start a war in Syria either.