That was no slip of the tongue. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s astonishing admission Sunday, March 15, that to end the civil war in Syria “the United States will have to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar Assad” was well thought out and guileful. Neither was it challenged by any Obama administration official.
Even so, the State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki tied herself in knots in a lame attempt to save her boss from the rancor greeting this sudden U-turn, in view of the Syrian ruler’s horrific record in a war just entering its fifth year.
“As we have long said, there always has been a need for representatives of the Assad regime to be a part of that process,” she said. “It would not be, and would never be – and it wasn’t what Secretary Kerry was intending to imply – that that would be Assad himself” Psaki explained that Kerry was “using Assad as shorthand to mean the whole of the Damascus regime.”
The spokeswoman’s excuses ran on idle. In none of the failed peace bids in the past did Assad ever intend talking personally with the United States. He only offered to send what he called “representatives of the Syrian people.”
Kerry’s words went down badly in Paris. The French government is not just opposed to the nuclear agreement taking final shape between the US and Iran, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius quickly rejected any role for Assad in proposed Syrian peace talks, saying it would be a “scandalous gift” to the Islamic State-ISIS.
US ready to help end Syrian war and save Iran multi-billion cost
debkafile’s Washington and Gulf sources reveal why the belated Obama administration’s validation of Assad as a peace partner was not uttered at random, but addressed to two definite parties: Tehran and Moscow.
Iran has long been sinking in the Syrian conflict a colossal fortune – around quarter of a billion dollars a month to prop up the Assad regime, notwithstanding its own pressing economic headaches, aggravated by falling oil prices.
Iranian officers are managing the Syrian army’s war effort on the main fronts, Damascus, Aleppo and the South. Tehran spends another $100 million per month to maintain Lebanese Hizballah troops in Syria to fight Assad’s war. The size of this Lebanese expeditionary force keeps on rising and stands now at 100,000 fighters.
The US Secretary of State’s purpose therefore was to dangle a lure to tempt Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei into playing ball on the nuclear deal. His reward would be an Obama administration initiative to end the Syria war and so help disburden Iran of its costly commitment – even up to recognition of Iran’s ally, Bashar Assad – if that is what it takes.
The Islamic regime’s financial saving from war’s end may even approximate the value of sanctions relief – a benefit which it was calculated in Washington that Tehran would find hard to resist.
Assad rejects Kerry’s comments as inimical
Washington’s proposition found Damascus worried that its Iranian ally might dump the Assad regime after clinching a nuclear deal with the United States. Tehran might even stand by for the Americans to set up an alternative Syrian regime in Damascus.
The Syrian ruler has become distrustful of Tehran after watching deepening US-Iranian collaboration in Baghdad and its culmination in their joint acceptance of the Haider al-Abadi government, which is no more than an Iranian stooge. It is manipulated from Tehran and the Iraqi Shiite shrine city of Najef, where Iran rules the senior clerical fraternity.
Assad figures that the US and Iran might follow up on this joint effort by selecting a group of active and former Syrian army officers as a substitute regime for his own in Damascus.
In the light of this suspicion, the Syrian president’s flat rejection of the belated US recognition of his legitimacy made sense. “Declarations from outside do not concern us,” he said Monday, March 16. “We are still hearing the declarations and we should look for actions and then decide,” he was quoted as saying by Syrian state media.
Any “talk about the future of the Syrian president is for Syrian people alone,” Assad said and dismissed “comments made from abroad” as “bubbles that disappear after some time.”
Assad was warning Tehran not to jilt him
Assad’s words referred explicitly to the US Secretary but were addressed equally to Tehran.
They were intended to put his Iranian ally and arms supplier on notice that he would not accept Tehran’s collaboration with the Obama administration for any deal that made Syria the quid pro quo for more American concessions to achieve a nuclear deal.
In Moscow, US acceptance of Bashar Assad as a negotiating partner was seen as a barb aimed as much at President Vladimir Putin as the Iranians – or even more.
Arming the Syrian army with weapons and ammunition costs the Russian treasury some $6 billion a year. This is a heavy financial burden, doubly so when Moscow needs to lay out large amounts of cash to stabilize annexed Crimea, which marked its first anniversary this week, and support the war fought in Ukraine.
Putin stands firmly against the nuclear deal shaping up between the US and Iran and would refuse to accept the Obama administration stepping up as Bashar Assad’s guardian angel, on four grounds:
Putin cherishes ties with Tehran, Assad and latterly Sisi
1. Moscow is strongly opposed to Iran, its southern neighbor and partner in the Caspian Sea, evolving into a nuclear threshold state.
2. Preserving the Assad regime in Damascus was for years an interest shared by Russia and Iran, which served Moscow. The relationship could change in the event of a US-Iranian nuclear deal being signed. However, Putin will not relinquish it in a hurry.
3. Moscow could take Kerry’s message to Assad in either of two ways: Either as the Obama administration’s acceptance of the Russian position on Syria, or as a signal to Assad that he can henceforth dispense with Russian support now he has got the Americans on his side.
Moscow will not give up on its ties with Damascus any more than with Tehran. This two-level structure is the bedrock of Russian policy in the Middle East.
4. It has been further strengthened by Moscow’s new partnership in its Syrian policy with Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi, who maintains quiet contacts with Assad and supports his survival in power. Putin views this partnership with the most populous Arab state as an important strategic asset. Its preservation is underpinned by their shared policy for keeping the Syrian ruler in power.