- - Thursday, January 28, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Is this the United States of America that continuously defers to Russia and Iran, and thereby to the Syria of Bashar al Assad? Do our own actions and words enable one of the most murderous and cruel, destructive and destabilizing, regimes the world has ever seen? Have we so lost our strategic sense and moral compass that we knowingly repeat policies that have made war and atrocities in Syria worse?

The disheartening answer is yes.

Here is the new news, which reads like the old: In December, the United Nations Security Council voted for a Syrian “peace process” to begin this month with a cease-fire and government-opposition talks, which, in turn, would eventually lead to “transitional government.” In line with Russian and Iranian wishes, the United States did not insist that President Assad must go. The U.N. resolution was preceded by a flurry of meetings between Russians and Americans. After meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in December, Secretary of State John Kerry pronounced, “The United States and our partners are not seeking so called regime change.” The focus, he said, is “on a peace process which will lead to presidential elections, in which Assad might or might not be a candidate.” Discussions between President Obama and Mr. Putin in January resulted in the leaders “agreeing” on the need for a political solution, with Press Secretary Josh Earnest praising Russia for its “constructive role.”

This has been described as “the most serious effort yet by the United Nations in support of a solution to the civil war.” The United States and Russia are said to have engaged in “their first serious effort” to compromise on the terms of peace. Such assertions are false. U.N. peace plans have been tried before, and US and Russian collaboration on Syria has been tried and tried again. What is true is that, in spite of Russia’s military incursion into Syria and its targeting of non-Islamist rebels, U.S. cooperation with Russia has continued. What is true is that the “peace process” has again bought the Syrian regime time, and has given Russia and Iran cover. While Americans, Russians and Iranians were “agreeing to a political solution,” the Syrian Army, which had suffered serious reversals, pushed into a major rebel stronghold in Latakia with the help of Russian airstrikes and Iranian forces.

As per usual, it turns out that Russia and Iran care about keeping Mr. Assad in power and expanding their own power — not about peaceful solutions. They have rejected attempts by Saudi Arabia, which opposes Mr. Assad, to organize the Syrian opposition for the talks. While the United States and Russia urge rebels to attend without any preconditions, rebels insist that the conference be accompanied by humanitarian conditions and a halt to Russian and regime bombardment. The talks, set to begin on January 25, are now “delayed.”



None of this is new. In 2012, having belatedly given up on failed Arab League peace plans, the administration supported a Russian-backed U.N. plan, which did not require Assad to step down. In 2013, Mr. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced a conference that would call for transitional government, but would not require Mr. Assad’s departure. After Mr. Assad deployed chemical weapons, the United States agreed to a new Russian plan — for a peace conference, and removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons by 2014, if the United States refrained from striking Syria. Tellingly, the U.N. resolution that formalized the plan didn’t authorize the use of force if Syria failed to comply. In early 2015, the administration expressed approval for another Russian conference (in Moscow), even though the goal of transitional government had been dropped, benefiting Mr. Assad. Never mind the turpitude of asking the Syrian people to coexist with a regime that tortures, bombs, gasses and starves them.

These conferences were over before they began. Rebels knew that if they laid down arms, Mr. Assad would crush them while, without defeat on the ground, Mr. Assad saw no reason to compromise.

In the meantime, Syrian forces repeatedly regained lost momentum; Iranian Quds, al-Nusra and other terrorists capitalized upon the chaos and despair; ISIS metastasized; the Russian military came to Mr. Assad’s defense; and suffering of unimaginable proportions unfolded. Yet, the Obama administration repeatedly turned down promising humanitarian or strategic proposals, from arming vetted rebels to creating safe zones. In a December 2012 Washington Post op-ed, Senators McCain, Lieberman and Graham warned, “If we remain on the current course, future historians are likely to record the slaughter of innocent Syrians, and the resulting harm done to America’s national interests and moral standing, as a shameful failure of U.S. leadership and one of the darker chapters in our history.”

Inexcusably, the United States did stay on course, and the Syria chapter is indeed disgraceful.

Anne R. Pierce is the author of “A Perilous Path: The Misguided Foreign Policy of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry” (Post Hill Press) and “Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman: Mission and Power in American Foreign Policy” (Transaction).

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