May 29, 2020

Kerry’s first challenge: Syria

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Kerry’s first challenge: Syria

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – Former Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., used his first trip as Secretary of State to move the dial on U.S. policy toward Syria, and it’s about time. After two years of civil war and some 70,000 Syrians dead, President Assad is still ensconced in his palace. The White House says that Assad has lost all legitimacy and must go, but has done little to force the issue, instead staying on the sidelines.

During recent Senate hearings, it came out that former administration officials, Hillary Clinton at State and Leon Panetta at Defense, had urged President Obama last year to arm the Syrian opposition. Wary of getting pulled into yet another war and uncertain how to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys in the polyglot opposition, Obama refused their request to get the U.S. more involved militarily.

Obama’s dilemma is understandable. The Free Syrian Army is led by Gen. Salim Idriss, a secularist defector, but other rebels, many of whom do not follow him, include the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nura organization, and a variety of mostly Sunni fighters. Arrayed against them are the forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, including Christians, Kurds, and Shiite Muslims, many of them from the Alawite sect. Alawites comprise just over 10 percent of the population, but through the Assad family, they have ruled Syria since 1970.

Kerry met with leaders of the Syrian Opposition Coalition at a conference in Rome and announced $60 million in U.S. “non-lethal aid,” which White House spokesman Jay Carney said is on top of an earlier transfer of $50 million in non-lethal assistance. The administration has also provided $385 million in humanitarian aid.

Yet the administration resists providing weaponry directly to the fighters, though Kerry gave some indication that could change. When he met with opposition leaders, he said their requests were “under review.” These leaders initially had refused to meet with him, fearing they would just become props in a photo-op and their pleas for military assistance would be rejected.

It took a round of phone calls from Kerry and from Vice President Biden to persuade the coalition leaders that change is in the air and that Kerry would hear them out and take their demands seriously. The $60 million in non-lethal aid, mostly military rations and medical supplies, was a show of the administration’s good faith.

What the Syrian coalition really needs is ammunition and what they really want is U.S. anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. Kerry’s opening moves suggest that more change could be in the offing despite Obama’s reservations. The rebels have been advancing in recent weeks, and State Department officials explained that this latest package of non-lethal aid is meant in part to build security and civil society in the areas where the rebels have gained control.

Kerry’s trip to Europe and the Middle East couldn’t come at a better time with the rebel army gaining ground and Assad looking more and more beleaguered. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Kerry has forged relationships with most of the world’s leaders, including Assad, and there is some hope that Kerry can persuade Assad to go into exile while there’s still time.

In diplomacy, personal relationships matter and Kerry embarks on his mission with a great deal of credibility at home and abroad. He also understands that diplomacy, just like politics, works best when there are carrots and sticks. When he can offer an incentive to encourage the behavior that is in the U.S. interest, he is in a better position to make demands that might be accepted.

As a second-term Secretary of State, Kerry has great leverage to re-set U.S. foreign policy in areas where it is clearly not working, or where it is stalled. Both descriptions are true with Syria. In his talks with European officials, Kerry opened the door to a more interventionist policy toward Syria with greater military assistance. He told students in Germany that the U.S. is working toward a peaceful resolution, but if Assad’s regime keeps up its brutal slaughter of citizens, “then you need to at least provide some kind of support for those fighting for their rights.” He delivered on those words just a few days later, showing he means business.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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