Commentary Magazine


The Consequences of Kerry’s Vanity Project

The Russian-brokered deal for the West to partner with Bashar al-Assad to start clearing out his chemical weapons seemed to announce what everyone had already figured out: the Obama administration’s goal in Syria was not a rebel victory. Yet in truth the turning point in public perception of President Obama’s approach to Syria probably took place when the Wall Street Journal broke the news that the White House still hadn’t fulfilled its pledge to provide weapons to the moderate opposition.

The reason for the cold feet was calculating–and devastating to the rebels:

The Obama administration doesn’t want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate.

U.S. officials attribute the delay in providing small arms and munitions from the CIA weapons program to the difficulty of establishing secure delivery “pipelines” to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands, in particular Jihadi militants also battling the Assad regime. …

The White House wants to strengthen the opposition but doesn’t want it to prevail, according to people who attended closed-door briefings by top administration officials over the past week. The administration doesn’t want U.S. airstrikes, for example, tipping the balance of the conflict because it fears Islamists will fill the void if the Assad regime falls, according to briefing participants, which included lawmakers and their aides.

So the message was clear: the Obama administration had given up on the moderates. The only non-Assad alternative to the moderates was victory by Islamists, who had gained strength and taken over the lead in opposition. It was more important to prevent an Islamist takeover of Syria, according to the administration, than to roll the dice on moderates. And yet we read today a very curious addendum to this, one that undermines the administration’s previous justification for inaction but helps illuminate the administration’s approach to the entire region, including the Iranian issue and Israeli-Palestinian talks.

The Washington Post reports that the Obama administration is seeking to protect what really matters to them–the diplomatic photo op:

The Obama administration is willing to consider supporting an expanded Syrian rebel coalition that would include Islamist groups, provided the groups are not allied with al-Qaeda and agree to support upcoming peace talks in Geneva, a senior U.S. official said Thursday. …

The emergence last month of the Islamic Front has presented the administration with a dilemma as it seeks to maintain military pressure on the Syrian government before an opposition-government peace conference next month that it hopes will lead to the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad and the installation of a transitional government.

The SMC, whose Free Syrian Army is the only opposition armed force the United States backs in Syria, has lost both strength and influence to anti-Assad Islamic groups. Among them is the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the al-Nusra Front, both of which have been labeled terrorist groups by Washington.

There are the obvious questions: how will the Obama administration vet the groups? What really constitutes an al-Qaeda “affiliation?” Doesn’t this incentivize Islamists to simply create front groups and workarounds? Why is official affiliation more important than, say, ideology and tactics? The answer to that last question is easy: the administration has decided that it is not fighting a war on terror; it’s fighting a war on al-Qaeda.

That also helps us understand the strategy, such as it is, that underpins the Obama administration’s problem-solving agenda. What the president wants is to preserve the superficial appearance of peace by gathering people in Geneva and signing whatever agreement can be cobbled together. This president prefers style over substance, and he has the perfect compliment in a secretary of state mildly obsessed with resume-padding.

So we got the deal with Assad that took the air out of the tires of his opposition and enabled him to go on killing with glee. Then we got the nuclear deal with Iran, which wasn’t a good deal and in fact may not have been a “deal” at all, just a flaky Potemkin escape hatch for the overmatched Western negotiators.

And now Kerry is back in Israel, where he is claiming that the talks are on schedule to produce a comprehensive, full peace agreement by the end of April. It’s possible that Kerry’s right, and he’s not leading the dangerously delusional vanity project he appears to be–gambling with the lives of others so he can secure a few more of those shiny, overtly ridiculous media profiles he’s been scoring lately. But it remains the case that the talks have stalled after Israel had to release terrorists for the privilege of being part of Kerry’s charade.

That is, Kerry appears to have been played by the Palestinians after getting played by Iran and played by Assad and the Russians before that, and is angling for a chance to be played by Islamist extremists for his next act. This process, of pointless photo ops and clumsy negotiations, is the metric by which this administration grades its foreign policy. And its got another mendacious “victory” planned for Syria.

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