US Secretary of State John Kerry refuses to take no for an answer in his unremitting effort to get an international conference convened in Geneva for negotiating a political solution of the Syrian conflict in the first week of June.
He still has five hurdles to overcome.
1. The US administration has not formally bowed to Moscow’s stipulation that Iran be invited, but DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources report that both Moscow and Tehran know that, however reluctantly, the administration will give in on this point and Iran will take its seat at the table.
Those sources discern within the Obama administration two opposing camps on the question of Iran’s participation:
The Kerry school holds that, since Iran is part of the Syrian problem, it has to be part of the solution and invited to attend.
This view is challenged by the National Security Council, including former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, which argues that inviting the Iranian government to the conference would endorse the Islamic Republic as a leading Middle East power. The US should therefore only accept Iranian representatives as part of the Syrian delegation.
A senior State Department official belatedly acknowledged Tuesday, May 21, that Iranian troops were in Syria fighting alongside forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and Hizballah elite combatants from Lebanon. (This was first disclosed by our sources in late February.)
Obama notices Hizballah in Syria two months late
Up until now, the Obama administration chose to keep the real events on the Syrian battlefield out of sight and mind, ignoring the deployment of two elite Hizballah brigades to Syria to fight for Assad.
It was only two months later, that President Barack Obama picked up the phone to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman Monday, May 20 and voiced his concern about the Shiite terrorist group’s interference in the Syrian civil war. Since March therefore, those Hizballah fighters have been moving back and forth between Lebanon and Syria with ease. Before then, they were employed in securing Syrian battle lines and Shiite areas against attack.
All that time, the US could have provided the Lebanese president with intelligence and logistical assistance for hampering the freedom of movement enjoyed by Hizballah’s fighting forces crossing the border.
But when did the Obama wake up?
The day after Hizballah pulled off the Assad regime’s greatest victory: the capture of the strategic northwestern Syrian town of Al-Qusayr which sits on the high road from Syrian Homs to the Hermel Mountains of Lebanon.
By default, US policy gave this Iranian proxy a battlefield success and left itself little option but to invite its Iranian master to the international conference on Syria’s future.
Assad’s price for attending: Recognition of his presidency
2. Our sources say that Assad has begun sorting out his delegation for the conference before finally deciding whether to attend.
He is holding out first for guarantees from Moscow and Tehran to champion his entitlement to a personal role in every political and diplomatic process initiated by the gathering, including a transitional administration, and his right to run for reelection as president in late 2014. Assad has been telling his associates that the laurels of his latest military victories should lift him back into the presidential palace not just through 2014, but beyond – at least until 2016.
Will the Obama administration swing around from its insistence on Assad’s exit far enough to swallow the Syrian ruler’s demands?
3. While divided on most other issues, the majority of rebel field commanders are opposed to the international conference. They are united in their loss of faith in the Obama administration, which stands accused of leaving the rebels in the lurch without weapons and, moreover, forcing Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE to cut down on their arms and funding assistance to the rebel cause.
At the most critical juncture of their uprising, the rebels found themselves pinned to the wall by superior forces heavily armed by Iran and Russia.
The Syrian rebels’ sense of being jilted by America will have far-reaching repercussions for Washington’s future credibility in the region, especially in the eyes of national and religious entities.
Rebel discord preys on conference expectations
Kerry is deeply concerned that the conference will be the platform for a public display of the rebel movement’s profound divisions. Some of the leaders will come to Geneva; others will make a big play of boycotting it.
The heavily reduced Friends of Syria meeting in Amman Wednesday, May 22, did nothing to allay his concern.
Two senior members of the Syrian National Coalition, which has won recognition as the dominant Syrian opposition group, said Tuesday, May 21, it will seek ironclad guarantees for Assad's departure as part of any transition deal and more weapons for rebel fighters. The group will hash out its position on the conference at a three-day General Assembly in Istanbul later this week.
4. Although Washington and Moscow might be expected to be of one mind on the Al Qaeda forces fighting in Syria and their Islamist pawns – and indeed they agree that there is no room for them at the international summit – yet unable to agree on how to handle the jihadis.
Al Qaeda’s fighting strength and weight in the Syrian conflict has been markedly bolstered by its combat performance and superior weaponry, as well as by Iraqi reinforcements.
(See a separate article on the migration of Al Qaeda fighters from Iraq to Syria).
US disengagement from Syria reduces its clout
However, unlike Moscow, the Obama administration is not ready to go to war on al Qaeda in Syria right now. And even if it were, Moscow would suspect US intervention of being geared to Assad’s ouster.
So, there is no real chance of the US and Russia getting together against al Qaeda.
This means that any accords negotiated at the international conference in Geneva – assuming it gets off the ground as planned in June – will be smashed as soon as they reach Syria by the Islamists at the forefront of the rebellion.
5. The rebels’ two leading allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have not yet made their intentions known about attending the conference. Our Gulf sources say they are watching to see if Iran is invited. If it is, they are unlikely to show their faces there.
Secretary Kerry will faces an uphill task in bringing US will to bear on the Geneva meeting at a time of America’s declining regional clout as a world power capable of dictating the course of events in Syria – especially after Washington cut back the commitments of Turkey, Israel and the Persian Gulf states to the Syrian opposition as well as Lebanon.
Moscow, Tehran, Damascus and Beirut, in contrast, maintain a strong and unified grip on events, capitalizing on Washington’s disengagement to promote their interests at the expense of the US and its allies.