Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Kerry’s Syrian Quagmire

As the secretary of state tries to get the rebels and the regime to the negotiating table, a State Department official says it would take "sarin gas being lobbed at Tel Aviv" for Washington to take military action.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Even as Secretary of State John Kerry pushes for all parties in the Syrian civil war to gather around a table in Geneva, he was forced to implore his supposed partners in peace to refrain from taking steps that could worsen the bloodshed. On May 31he called on his Russian co-hosts in the talks to hold back from delivering advanced missile systems to the Syrian government. Delivery of the S-300 surface-to-air missile defense system, said Kerry, was "not helpful."

Yet the move from the Russians is only the latest signal that peace talks between the Syrian opposition and President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which the United States hopes to hold in July, face slim odds at best. Many in Washington are already wagering that political and military realities will overtake the diplomatic overture Kerry announced early this month. The secretary of state's plans received another blow on May 30, when the Syrian opposition said it would boycott talks so long as Hezbollah forces were fighting alongside the Syrian military and "massacres" were occurring.

"The opposition is in no place tactically or politically to enter into Geneva right now, so they should not be pushed," said one State Department official, who referred to the timing of the talks as a "mystery." "It is a long shot to get them there -- and if we get them there I think it will further divide the opposition." 

Even as Secretary of State John Kerry pushes for all parties in the Syrian civil war to gather around a table in Geneva, he was forced to implore his supposed partners in peace to refrain from taking steps that could worsen the bloodshed. On May 31he called on his Russian co-hosts in the talks to hold back from delivering advanced missile systems to the Syrian government. Delivery of the S-300 surface-to-air missile defense system, said Kerry, was "not helpful."

Yet the move from the Russians is only the latest signal that peace talks between the Syrian opposition and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which the United States hopes to hold in July, face slim odds at best. Many in Washington are already wagering that political and military realities will overtake the diplomatic overture Kerry announced early this month. The secretary of state’s plans received another blow on May 30, when the Syrian opposition said it would boycott talks so long as Hezbollah forces were fighting alongside the Syrian military and "massacres" were occurring.

"The opposition is in no place tactically or politically to enter into Geneva right now, so they should not be pushed," said one State Department official, who referred to the timing of the talks as a "mystery." "It is a long shot to get them there — and if we get them there I think it will further divide the opposition." 

The one thing the opposition agrees upon is their need for a guarantee that if Assad does not step down before talks — an eventuality no one expects — he will step aside as a consequence of them. And if the Syrian president remains determined to fight to the end, opposition leaders expect the international community to provide them with weapons to defeat him on the battlefield. As of now, however, President Barack Obama’s administration does not look at all prepared to take that step.

"From the administration perspective… the only thing that will work in this situation is the ‘negotiated settlement,’ and so that is where this White House wants to keep it," said a second State Department official. "There appears to be no interest in doing any next steps, and so this is sort of a fallback because the next step is not something that they are willing to envision." 

No Plan B has emerged in discussions with Washington diplomats about what to do should the peace talks fail to end the savage two-year conflict. The other options before the White House, according to this official, "are all problematic, they are all not easy and from where I sit there really is not interest in being involved. Period."

Ideas that have been floated by opposition supporters include the creation and enforcement of a no-fly zone and a push to arm the rebels. In the meantime, State Department officials working on the event say they are putting all they have into Geneva. 

"The idea is we exhaust every possibility," said a third State Department official who was not authorized to speak on the record. "We are facing this enormous confluence of bad things happening but a limited arsenal."

This official said the best-case scenario was that the opposition showed up to the Geneva talks, Assad agreed to step down, and the two sides managed to outline the solution for a political transition. The worst-case scenario, however, was that "we lose the patient [Syria] on the ground and they bleed out. Everything we do in the Middle East is tied up in Syria right now." 

Veteran diplomats watching from the sidelines say that even if Geneva fails, Kerry is doing what any good secretary of state should.

"It is a long, uncertain shot, but it is better than doing nothing," said former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who served as America’s top diplomat in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Diplomatic sources confirmed Crocker was among those recently asked to serve as America’s envoy to the Syrian opposition, but was unable to accept the position given professional commitments made while still ambassador to Afghanistan. "If it fails it will at least tell us what won’t work and perhaps open up the door to what might, although this is a pretty desperate situation." 

Other diplomats find it hard to imagine how a failed Geneva conference could do anything but make an already nightmarish situation ever worse.

"It is a policy of containment, non-intervention at all costs," said the first State Department official. "Short of sarin gas being lobbed at Tel Aviv, we are not going to intervene."

<p> Gayle Lemmon is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. </p>

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.