Syria Still Haunting Obama’s Strategy in the Middle East

by Robert E. Hunter

For three years, the Syrian civil war has continued unabated; and for three years, the so-called “international community” has achieved almost nothing — other than to head off the war’s escalation over the use of chemical weapons following President Barack Obama’s ill-considered drawing of a red line against such use.

Another try begins tomorrow in Geneva. But this meeting, dubbed “Geneva II” in reference to the last attempt in 2012, is already star-crossed. Late last week UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon invited Iran to take part. This was a reasonable, indeed necessary step, given that Iran is deeply engaged in all the relevant issues and could well be in a position to scotch any agreement.

Then, yesterday, the Secretary General rescinded the invitation. The reason — or pretext — for doing so?  That Iran was unwilling to accept a key component of Geneva I: in effect providing for the departure from power of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. The actual formulation: “The establishment of a transitional governing body which would exercise full executive powers.” In the interpretation by Assad’s opponents, that means he has to go. That transitional body “…could include members of the present government…,” but it would be “…formed on the basis of mutual consent,” which of course would not be granted to President Assad. (This is the full text of the June 30, 2012 “Action Group for Syria Final Communique.”)

Reportedly, pressure on the Secretary General to rescind his invitation came principally from the US and the UK. If Iran would be in Geneva, the opposition would not: ergo, no negotiations. Of course, this begs the question of cui bono: who potentially has most to gain from the talks? Since the opposition has not been winning on the ground, this was a bluff that might have been called.

But the Obama administration had to consider a further factor: parallel negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program. These are already fraught with difficulties, notably, the opposition to the interim agreement by Israel, Persian Gulf oil states, and many members of the US Congress. The timing of the Geneva fracas was also important: yesterday, both Iran and its interlocutors began to implement the Joint Plan of Action, including some relaxation of sanctions. Was it worth risking even more intense political opposition to Washington’s dealing with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program by allowing Tehran to come to Geneva? By the same token, there is also risk that the “disinvitation” will play into Iranian hard-liners’ opposition to dealing with the American Great Satan. Hopefully the administration has accurately calculated that risk.

There is a broader context. President Obama faces difficult choices in his Middle East strategy, conditioned in major part by domestic politics and pressures. He cannot at one and the same time exert pressure on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, allow Iran to join the Syria negotiations, and pursue a nuclear agreement with Iran that includes reducing sanctions. The obvious strategic priority is boxing in the Iranian nuclear program, even if that risks postponing serious attempts to stop the killing in Syria.

Thus the Syria talks do not begin auspiciously, to say the least.

The imbroglio over Iran’s participation also reveals two other fault lines. The first derives from a requirement that Obama imposed in 2011, in addition to his red line against the use of chemical weapons — namely that Assad must go. To resolve the Syrian conflict, that condition may be necessary.  But to make it a precondition was hardly likely to encourage Assad and his government to “play ball.”

Even more, there is little willingness to understand that Assad acts not just for himself but as leader of a significant, though minority part of the Syrian population, the community of Alawites, a Shi’a sect.  Notably, at Geneva I, only Iraq represented a Shi’a perspective; and with Iran now excluded, the same is true of Geneva II. Geneva I did argue that in Syria “There is an overwhelming wish for a state that.…[0]ffers equal opportunities and chances for all…. Numerically smaller communities must be assured that their rights will be respected.” But as with so much international diplomacy, “wishful thinking” is unlikely to reassure the part of the population being asked to give up power and possibly to face savage retribution.

To be sure, the Alawite minority has dominated the rest, including the majority Sunni community; and to end the civil war, that situation has to change. But without providing solid assurances to the Alawite community (and to others), chances of a peaceful settlement are zero.

The second fault line is that Syria’s civil war is part of a broader struggle for power and preeminence throughout the region, at one critical level between Sunnis and Shi’as. The current phase in that struggle began with the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, toppling a minority Sunni regime dominating a Shi’a majority population. The Syrian civil war is in major part a “get even” effort by Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Worse, there is an influx of Islamist terrorists inspired, financed and armed by people in the same Sunni states that want to redress the Sunni-Shi’a regional balance.

The US and others thus face a dilemma at Geneva. They can persevere in demanding that Assad depart as part of “transitional” arrangements, while excluding a key regional player (Iran); or they can decide that Assad can remain and run for reelection (as he has said he would do), but in elections that are structured to redress at least some legitimate grievances of the non-Alawite community (Assad would lose such an election); that solid guarantees must be put in place for all Syrian communities, if that can be done; that all relevant outsiders be engaged at Geneva; and that states permitting free rein for Al Qaeda and its ilk must finally be called to account.

This is called strategy, diplomacy, leadership, willpower, and the willingness of the Obama administration to put US national interests ahead of domestic politics.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. Iran indeed should participate in the Syrian peace conference.

  2. An excellent analysis of a terrible situation! The fact is that Bashar Asad represents more than just the Alawite minority. A considerable number of the Christian, Druze and Kurdish minorities that together represent about 40% of the population, and may be a sizeable portion of the secular Sunnis also support him. Together, they may even form a majority.

    It is strange that some 30 countries, most of whom have nothing to do with Syria, as well as the main backers of the rebels/terrorists, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, have been invited while the secretary general had to de-invite Iran presumably under US pressure despite the fact that everybody admits that Iran is a main player in Syria. The US insistence to bar Iran from the talks may also make some people question her goodwill in nuclear talks.

    Instead of playing geopolitical games over the lives of millions of Syrians it is time for the countries that really mean well to come together and put an end to this carnage. What is really needed is for the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia that are the main players in this deadly game to get together under UN umbrella and force both sides to declare a ceasefire, followed by elections under international supervision. If the rebels are so sure that they represent the majority of the Syrians why are they so afraid of taking part in tightly supervised elections and test their chances? The sad fact is that they don’t believe in democracy but in the power of guns and explosives. If the central government falls without a suitable alternative violence will intensify and will spread.

  3. Who’s running the show? Red lines, blue lines, bread lines, all kinds of lines, even the B.S. kind of lines. Hey gang, let’s have a war, but leave out 1/2 of the participants, at least those who might make a difference, that is, difference from what I/we want.

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