Is Obama ready for an about-face to recognize Assad? Will Syria provide the strike force against ISIS?
High expectations based on unconfirmed reports swirled around Arab capitals Sunday, Dec. 14, that US President Barack Obama, in league with Moscow and Tehran, had turned his longstanding anti-Assad policy on its head. He was said to be willing to accept Bashar Assad’s rule and deem the Syrian army the backbone of the coalition force battling the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
If these expectations are borne out by the Obama administration, the Middle East would face another strategic upheaval: The US and Russia would be on the same side, a step toward mending the fences between them after the profound rupture over Ukraine, and the Washington-Tehran rapprochement would be expanded.
The Lebanese Hizballah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah would be vindicated in the key role they played in buttressing President Assad in power.
But for Saudi Arabia and Israel, an Obama turnaround on Assad would be a smack in the face.
The Saudis along with most of the Gulf emirates staked massive monetary and intelligence resources in the revolution to topple the Syrian ruler.
Israel never went all-out in its support for the Syrian uprising, but focused on creating a military buffer zone under rebel rule in southern Syria, in order to keep the hostile Syrian army, Hizballah and elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps fighting for Assad at a distance from its northern borders with Syria and Lebanon.
If Obama goes through with accepting the Assad regime, Israel will have to write off most of its military investment in Syria. In any case, Israel’s intelligence agencies misjudged the Syrian situation from the first; until a year ago, they kept on insisting that Assad’s days were numbered.
debkafile’s Arab sources single out major pointers to the approach of a reversal of Syrian policy in Washington:
1. The resignation of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary last month. Hagel was adamant in advocating Assad's ouster.
2. No more than one sentence was devoted to the Syrian conflict in the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) summit's resolutions in Doha last week, despite its centrality to inter-Arab affairs: the summit called for “a political solution” of the Syrian issue that would “ensure Syria’s security, stability and territorial integrity.”
Not a word on Assad’s removal from power.
3. debkafile’s Washington and Moscow sources report that the Syrian issue was destined to figure large in the Rome talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Sunday, Dec. 14.
The Kremlin is making US acceptance of its plan for ending the Syrian conflict the condition for joining the US-European line on the Palestinian demand that next week’s UN Security Council session set a two-year deadline for Palestinian statehood within 1967 border. The text calls for Israeli “occupation of Palestinian territory captured in the 1967 war” to end by November 2016.
France, Britain and Germany are in efforts to draft a resolution of their own.
So any deal Kerry and Lavrov are able to finalize for a tradeoff between the Palestinian and Syria issues will be put before Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu when he meets the US secretary in Rome Monday, Dec. 15.
Netanyahu will ask Washington to exercise its veto against the Palestinian motion. But the Obama administration would rather not, since it supports the Palestinians in principle.
Israel may therefore find itself this time ranged against a united US-Russian front on the Palestinian issue, Moscow's reward for Washington liniing up behind its plan for Syria.
Moscow proposes that the Syrian opposition throw in the towel and both sides accept a truce – especially in the long battle for Aleppo – for the re-convening of the Geneva 2 peace conference in Moscow, with America’s support and participation. Provincial elections would then take place in Syria to bring the Assad government and opposition elements into collaborating in the various ruling institutions.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov spent two days in Damascus last week to work on the details of this blueprint with Bashar Assad, after which he commented tellingly that he was “in contact with our American partners.”
Russian officials then elaborated on their plan before Hizballah and opposition representatives in Turkey.
Even the US Senate bill calling for fresh sanctions against Moscow and the supply of $350 million worth of military aid to Ukraine under the Ukraine Freedom Support Act is unlikely to rock the Kerry-Lavrov Middle East boat.
President Obama is unlikely to affix his signature to the bill and President Vladimir Putin will take it in his stride if he sees progress in reaching an agreement with the United States on Syria.
Even the American threat to station medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe following Moscow’s refusal to endorse the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty failed to cast a cloud over the Kerry-Lavrov encounter.
The two top diplomats have a solid history of progress in forging diplomatic accords on thorny international issues (e.g. Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s chemical weapons).
If they fail this time, Netanyahu’s talks with Kerry will be lighter and smoother. But if a Syria-Palestinian tradeoff is forged between the two powers, Israel may for the first time find itself on a collision course with a joint US-Russian front on the Palestinian issue.
Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Sunday, Dec. 14, that Israel would “rebuff any UN moves to set a timetable for withdrawal from territory.” He said Israel now faced a possible diplomatic offensive "to force upon us" such a withdrawal within two years.
Therefore, the Israeli air strikes against a shipment of Russian missiles for Syria for Hizballah last Monday, Dec. 8, may be seen as an act of defiance against this nascent big-power partnership. Our sources reveal that Moscow was not alone in demanding “explanations” for Israel’s “aggressive” – so too did Washington.