March 7, 2013

Kerry Carefully Talks The Talk About Syria

By: Elisha Maldonado

For two years, the United States’ foreign policy approach toward Syria has been to do nothing. In an effort to appear helpful, President Barack Obama sent  his new Secretary of State, John Kerry, to Turkey to discuss strategy on ending the nearly two-year old conflict — and to announce the United States’ offering of an additional $60 million in direct assistance for food and medical supplies to the Free Syrian Army as they fight to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Keep in mind that the John Kerry discussing Syria strategy with Turkey is the same John Kerry who, after a motorcycle ride with Assad, bestowed upon him the title of “my dear friend,” according to staffers. The same John Kerry who characterized the Syrian despot leading his country into a third year of war – with the result of more than 70,000 dead and 924,000 seeking refuge — as “generous.”

“Well, I personally believe that – I mean, this is my belief, OK? But President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had,” Kerry said in 2011. “And when I last went to – the last several trips to Syria – I asked President Assad to do certain things to build the relationship with the United States and sort of show the good faith that would help us to move the process forward.”

It’s refreshing to know our new secretary of state has such sway with dictators.

So now that Assad has demonstrated his good faith — or hasn’t, rather — Kerry went to the Middle East to discuss what to do. The Feb. 28 announcement is the first public commitment by the U.S. to send nonlethal support, though Washington has already provided $385 million in humanitarian aid and $54 million in communications. But until now, none of the money or provisions has gone directly to the rebel fighters, the State Department said in a press meeting.

“For more than a year, the United States and our partners have called on Assad to heed the voice of the Syrian people and to halt his war machine. Instead, what we have seen is his brutality increase,” Kerry said.

How thoughtful of Kerry to remind Turks of what they already know. Despite initially taking the quiet-diplomatic-words-will-end-the-conflict approach, Ankara, Turkey’s capital, has provided safe haven to Syrian rebels and nearly 200,000 refugees along the border it shares with Syria.

Turkey — and the Syrian opposition, more important — needs and wants more than the U.S. is offering, though, namely weapons. Turkey has been supplying the rebel Free Syrian Army with arms, while Russia is believed to have been providing the Syrian government with “90 percent of its weapons,” according to Ilan Berman, vice president for the American Foreign Policy Council.

Ankara has even suggested creating a buffer zone inside the northern part of Syria to staunch the influx of refugees, but that would require a military presence to secure it.

Yet the Obama administration insists on a non-active role, which might not bode too well with Turkey, given that Kerry — not exactly freedom’s champion — is basically selling Obama’s same old stance on the matter: not really doing anything.

“The real rub in Turkish-U.S. relations is that Turkey cares more about Syria than the U.S. Turks have the real security threat,” Berman said. “Turkey has been begging for U.S.-NATO intervention for a long time.”

Kerry is offering a new start, however, promising that the Syrian opposition won’t be left “dangling in the wind wondering where the support is or if it’s coming.”

Beautiful words — if there is any weight behind them. Inactivity breeds a sort of complacency. And complacency doesn’t overthrow authoritarian regimes.  What happens in Syria obviously matters, and not just for Syria, or Turkey, or the rest of the region.

“The stalemate on the ground has resulted in a de facto partition: Damascus is contested, the regime holds sway on the coast and the Alawite Mountains, while the rebellion has the upper hand in the north and in the eastern party of the country,” Fouad Ajami wrote for the Wall Street Journal. “The very nationhood of Syria is coming apart. If Mr. Kerry wants to break the stalemate, he must will the means.”

Elisha Maldonado is the editorial page editor for the International Business Times.