Commentary Magazine


Why the Syrian Rebels Don’t Trust Kerry

In January, as the Syrian civil war closed in on its second anniversary, news broke that was tantalizingly close to a game-changer. Josh Rogin reported that a State Department cable indicated the strong belief that Bashar al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons. The next day, Rogin reported a stern denial from the State Department. In the fog of war, the two claims seemed to have roughly equal credibility. But the Obama administration’s denial raised some eyebrows, since President Obama had declared the use of chemical weapons a clear red line that would necessitate intervention in the conflict. Was he moving the red line again, as he had appeared to do just months before, to avoid taking action?

The perception that President Obama was far too willing to find any excuse not to increase help to the Syrian rebels was especially unhelpful for the administration since the president had recently sent another dispiriting message to the Syrian opposition: the announcement of the nomination of John Kerry to be his next secretary of state. Kerry was, of course, one of the least perceptive American senators with regard to the cruelty of the man he called—as aides cringed—his “dear friend” Assad and bought hook, line and sinker the idea that the bloodthirsty tyrant might be ready to reform and moderate his behavior. So it’s not a complete surprise that, as Kerry seeks a meeting with them, the rebels are wondering whether they have any reason to let Kerry use them as props for a photo op to be almost certainly discarded thereafter. CBS News reports:

The Syrian Opposition may boycott their first opportunity to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry, despite his efforts to broker a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria and the Obama administration’s longtime support of a political transition away from the Assad regime.

That’s a lot of spin for one opening paragraph, giving the Obama administration credit for hoping Assad spontaneously combusts. But perhaps the reporter misses the obvious point that the rebels’ skepticism might not be despite, but rather because of, Kerry’s “efforts to broker a diplomatic solution to the crisis,” which the rebels might suspect means giving up their fight for freedom in return for a superficial personnel change at the top of the regime.

Kerry certainly has done nothing to earn any credibility from the rebels in Syria or elsewhere, and so he won’t be granted it. But at the end of the day, as terrible a spokesman as Kerry is for the cause of freedom, it’s Kerry boss the rebels are speaking to by dissing Kerry. As we learned recently, Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, as well as David Petraeus and Leon Panetta, wanted to intervene in Syria on behalf of the rebels. Obama turned them down. Kerry, therefore, wasn’t selected as secretary of state to set diplomatic policy but rather because he was the perfect representative of the administration’s policy already in place.

Though the analogy is imperfect, the conflict’s trajectory has been reminiscent of another such rebellion: the insurgency sparked in Chechnya and which spread across the Caucasus, especially to Dagestan and Ingushetia. The first Chechen war was one of independence, as the Chechens were eager to exploit the breakup of the Soviet Union and claim a form of long-awaited retribution for the abuses inflicted upon them by the Russian empire–especially under Stalin–and go their own way. They defended themselves from Russia’s troops more ably than expected, and eventually incurred the wrath of Vladimir Putin, who was eager to make a name for himself with the second Chechen war.

But by that time five years later, the nature of the Chechen insurgency had had begun a dramatic change. The cause of Chechen independence would be effectively hijacked by an Islamist core that would go on to found the Caucasus Emirate and lead a band of insurgents easily able to replicate Putin’s brutality. The world could be forgiven for wondering just who they were supposed to be rooting for and turning their attention elsewhere.

The Syrian rebellion formed as part of the Arab Spring, but when the West refused to play favorites and get involved, others–notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia–did. Money and weapons started flowing ever faster to terrorist groups like the al-Nusra Front and other Islamist radicals. The West throws up its hands. And so Ricochet’s Judith Levy’s interview with the journalist Jonathan Spyer, who has reported from Syria throughout the conflict, contains this exchange:

Judith: So is it a foregone conclusion that a victorious rebellion will mean an Islamist Syria?

Jonathan: Well, I think it is more and more looking that way now. I’m not sure if that was the case right at the beginning. To some degree, what’s happened now — and I stress to some degree, I don’t want to say this is the whole picture, but to some degree what’s happening now is the result of Western policy.

It’s a Western policy that Clinton and others opposed, to no avail. And it’s a policy that John Kerry is perfectly suited to carry out, something of which the rebels seem to be well aware.

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