John Kerry’s political legacy at stake in Syria

Sunday 09/10/2016
US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attend the International Syria Support Group Meeting at the Palace Hotel in New York, last September.

Washington - For US Secretary of State John Kerry, bringing peace to Syria is not just another diplomatic issue: He sees his political lega­cy at stake. Kerry, however, is fac­ing strong resistance with Russia’s determination to keep military pressure on rebel forces threaten­ing to frustrate his efforts to end the conflict.
Some analysts say Kerry is on a hopeless mission.
When his latest initiative to si­lence the guns in Syria failed, Washington suspended bilateral talks with Russia.
“John Kerry is a modern-day Don Quixote,” said Andrew Peek, a professor of international relations at Pepperdine University in Cali­fornia. Peek was alluding to Kerry’s efforts to work out a deal on Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Ser­gei Lavrov in the face of US Presi­dent Barack Obama’s reluctance to commit more American firepower to the cause.
Kerry, who has been America’s top diplomat since early 2013, has invested a huge effort and im­mense political capital in his cam­paign to halt the war in Syria but, as his tenure at the US State De­partment enters its final stretch, it is far from clear whether Kerry will achieve a breakthrough in Syria and leave office on a high note.
Peek said Kerry’s repeated nego­tiations with Russia had “turned from tragedy to farce” because he lacked the necessary backing from the White House. “He likes to be the guy on the ground” conducting negotiations, Peek said. “It is un­derstandable but it’s not working.”
Other experts judged Kerry less harshly. “He inherited a bad situa­tion” in Syria, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said, and he had to act within tight limits set by Obama.
Those limits became visible when Kerry met Lavrov for mara­thon talks in Geneva to secure a Syria ceasefire. During a break in the talks, Lavrov complained to waiting reporters that US officials had trouble reaching a consensus among themselves. “It takes five hours for our friends to check with Washington,” Lavrov said.
As Lavrov spoke, Kerry was on the phone with Washington seek­ing a green light on the ceasefire deal that included an exchange of intelligence between the United States and Russia and coordinated air strikes on extremist groups in Syria. He got strong resistance from US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who said Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad made “the situation in Syria more dangerous”.
Following hours of internal ne­gotiations Kerry overcame the scepticism and struck the deal with Lavrov — only to see the ceasefire crumble in a matter of days.
Since becoming secretary of State, Kerry spearheaded the nu­clear agreement with Iran and coordinated the West’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He suffered several high-profile setbacks, most prominently the collapse of US-sponsored Israeli- Palestinian peace talks in 2014.
Peek said “fruitless negotia­tions” were a theme of Kerry’s time in office. One result, he argued, is that US allies in the Middle East be­lieve that “America is seeking deals at any cost”, not as a power that stands up to players like Russia.
No one doubts Kerry’s energy and determination. Earlier this year, he broke the travel record for US secretaries of State when a visit to Bahrain pushed the total dis­tance he has travelled in office to 1.06 million miles.
In a recent editorial, the New York Times wrote that “there has been something honourable, even heroic, about the persistence, hard work and faith in diplomacy” dem­onstrated by Kerry. However, as the paper noted, experts and even administration officials argued that Kerry “too often pursues un­winnable goals and settles for im­perfect outcomes”.
In the case of Syria, Kerry argues that there is simply no alternative to the diplomatic route given that the United States does not want to deepen its military involvement. In a recent speech in Brussels, he said he felt a “great sense of out­rage that Russia has turned a blind eye to Assad’s deplorable use of these weapons of war, chlorine gas and barrel bombs, against his peo­ple”. But, he added: “We are not giving up on the Syrian people. We are not abandoning the pursuit of peace.” Washington and Moscow would still discuss Syria as part of larger multilateral negotiations, he said.
“Kerry has spent a lot of time and energy but the premises are all wrong,” said Zaher Sahloul, a Syrian-American physician and humanitarian activist. Kerry was unable to change things on the ground because “diplomacy with­out power is meaningless,” he added.
There are signs that Kerry disa­grees with Obama’s reluctance to get more involved in Syria. When 51 State Department diplomats publicly called for stronger US mil­itary action against Assad to force the Syrian leader into peace talks, Kerry did not rebuke the critics but expressed support for their posi­tion. Under Obama, US fighter jets have been attacking the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria but the presi­dent is unwilling to target Syrian government troops.
Even though Kerry earlier this year hinted at an American “Plan B” for Syria that reportedly could include an increased military in­volvement, Obama’s reluctance to use more and greater firepower has not changed, leaving the secretary of State with no option but to stick to the path of diplomacy.
“Obama is asking Kerry to do the impossible,” Sahloul said.