- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
BEIRUT, Lebanon — At the end of the press conference unveiling their deal over Syria’s chemical weapons program, a smiling Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to exchange a joke before walking offstage. Some of America’s allies in the fight against President Bashar al-Assad, however, weren’t laughing.
Even as a Syrian official hailed the Sept. 14 plan as a "victory" for the Assad regime, the reaction from U.S. partners in the Middle East ranged from skepticism to outright hostility. Turkey, which has been at the forefront of the anti-Assad cause, said it welcomed the initiative — but expressed doubts that the Syrian regime would comply with its terms. Officials in Ankara warned that the deal does nothing to resolve the Syrian crisis and said that more must be done to pressure Assad to relinquish power.
"The Syrian crisis is not only about use of chemical weapons — up until now, more than 100,000 people have died, not because of the chemical weapons, but because of increasing and indiscriminate violence perpetrated by the regime," said a Turkish official. "This is the root problem in Syria. This is what constitutes a clear and present danger to the region and international security."
Kerry visits Paris on Monday, where he is meeting with leaders who supported a military strike on Syria: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. His goal will be to not only sell the initiative to U.S. allies, but also to hammer out the details of a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria with the European powers. The Turkish message will be that, deal or no deal, Washington should keep the pressure on the Assad regime.
"There is kind of an emerging perception that now we have this agreement about the chemical weapons, everything is fine," said the Turkish official. "No, this is not the case.… The Assad regime should not think that they have been given a green light to continue with their conventional violence."
Syrian rebels, who have already ignored U.S. and European pleas to not publicly criticize the deal, also fear that it could represent a setback to their larger battle against the Assad regime. The Syrian opposition coalition criticized the plan for "embolden[ing] the regime to escalate its military offensive," and Free Syrian Army spokesman Qassem Saad Eddine said the agreement could "go to hell."
The reception by the Arab Gulf states has been equally frosty. Saudi Arabia was one of the most aggressive proponents of a U.S. intervention: Riyadh’s ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, rushed back to D.C. from vacation last month to advocate for military strikes against the Syrian regime. Now, according to multiple analysts who follow Saudi Arabia closely, the kingdom fears that the United States is retreating from its promises to hold Assad accountable for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack.
The Gulf states consider the plan "an absolute waste of time," said Nawaf Obaid, a fellow at Harvard University Kennedy School’s Belfer Center who serves as an advisor to Saudi diplomats. "This is the perfect ‘save my ass plan’ that Bashar needed, and the Russians gave it to him."
Obaid predicted that the U.S. leadership vacuum will cause Riyadh to deepen its involvement with the rebels. Obama’s acquiescence to the plan, said Obaid, "really hit [his] credibility in the region as an indecisive and even potentially weak president."
Saudi King Abdullah has long had a unique interest in Syrian affairs. This is partly a matter of tribal ties: His mother was a member of the massive Shammar tribe, which boasts over 500,000 members in Syria, and the king has cemented these alliances through marriage. Abdullah also was one of the most influential Saudi officials regarding Syria in the early 1980s, when he worked closely with Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of former President Hafez al-Assad and then the head of the Defense Companies, the most feared enforcers at the time of Assad family rule.
The Saudi media is already suggesting Assad is breaching the deal. The daily al-Watan, quoting Syrian opposition members, claimed that regime forces are smuggling chemical weapons to the Lebanese paramilitary organization Hezbollah. Meanwhile, the Lebanese daily al-Mustaqbal, which is tied to an anti-Assad political party sympathetic to Riyadh, accused Syria of smuggling equipment for manufacturing chemical weapons to Iraq.
But however the process plays out, the Syrian rebels worry that the Obama administration just entangled itself in a diplomatic effort that will preserve Assad’s rule for at least the next year. "We feel let down by the international community," rebel military chief Salim Idris said. "We don’t have any hope."