Did Obama and Clinton boot a chance to settle Syria a year ago?

October 04, 2013 0 Comments

posted at 8:41 am on October 4, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

So says Michael Hirsh at National Journal, reporting that former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had all but brokered a deal between the US, Russia, and Syria to have Bashar al-Assad abdicate in favor of free elections.  At the time, Hillary Clinton signed a communique to Annan along with Sergei Lavrov on the deal for a political “transition,” as they termed it.  Almost immediately thereafter, though, Clinton and Barack Obama undermined it with new demands for Assad’s unilateral ouster, and Susan Rice demanded a Chapter 7 resolution at the UN, effectively ending the partnership.

Why? Hirsh speculates that Obama needed to look tougher after being challenged on foreign policy by Mitt Romney in the summer before the election:

All of which should prompt a reexamination of the first Geneva conference in the summer of 2012, on which Kerry’s new push for peace is based. According to some officials involved, perhaps the greatest tragedy of Syria is that, some 80,000 lives ago, President Obama might have had within his grasp a workable plan to end the violence, one that is far less possible now. But amid the politics of the 2012 presidential election—when GOP nominee Mitt Romney regularly accused Obama of being “soft”—the administration did little to make it work and simply took a hard line against Assad, angering the special U.N. Syria envoy, Kofi Annan, and prompting the former U.N. secretary-general to quit, according to several officials involved.

Former members of Annan’s negotiating team say that after then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on June 30, 2012, jointly signed a communique drafted by Annan, which called for a political “transition” in Syria, there was as much momentum for a deal then as Kerry achieved a year later on chemical weapons. Afterward, Annan flew from Geneva to Moscow and gained what he believed to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s consent to begin to quietly push Assad out. But suddenly both the U.S. and Britain issued public calls for Assad’s ouster, and Annan felt blindsided. Immediately afterward, against his advice, then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice offered up a “Chapter 7” resolution opening the door to force against Assad, which Annan felt was premature.

Annan resigned a month later. At the time, the soft-spoken Ghanaian diplomat was cagey about his reasons, appearing to blame all sides. “I did not receive all the support that the cause deserved,” Annan told reporters in Geneva. He also criticized what he called “finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council.” But former senior aides and U.N. officials say in private that Annan blamed the Obama administration in large part. “The U.S. couldn’t even stand by an agreement that the secretary of State had signed in Geneva,” said one former close Annan aide who would discuss the talks only on condition of anonymity. “He quit in frustration. I think it was clear that the White House was very worried about seeming to do a deal with the Russians and being soft on Putin during the campaign.” One of the biggest Republican criticisms of Obama at the time was that he had, in an embarrassing “open mike” moment, promised Moscow more “flexibility” on missile defense after the election.

Administration officials deny this account, as do some who were involved at the State Department. Nonetheless, Frederic Hof, a U.S. ambassador who was Clinton’s special adviser for transition in Syria at the time, agrees that the negotiations could have been better handled. The harsh demand that “Assad must go” voiced by Clinton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague was “gratuitous,” says Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “Perhaps a greater effort should have been made to give Annan the time to do his due diligence.”

Perhaps, and perhaps we should also remember how well that forced “political transition” worked out in Egypt, too.  The Syrian army doesn’t have the same social and political standing as Egypt’s military does, either, which means it wouldn’t likely be able to control for a power grab by radical Islamists.  By the time this deal started coming together last year, the Syrian rebellion had already attracted large numbers of radicals and especially foreigners, which would have made the transition even less likely to succeed than in Egypt — where the first attempt at snap elections nearly produced a civil war there a year later.

Still, this gives some insight into why Vladimir Putin decided to push Obama aside this time and humiliate the US on the world stage.  They paid lip service to working with John Kerry on the eventual UN Security Council resolution, but in the end Russia and Syria got exactly what they wanted — a toothless commitment to chemical-weapons disarmament with no Chapter 7 consequences.  They must have suspected that Obama would exploit the situation for his own political gain again, and decided to act before Obama could.

Whatever the chances for success this original plan had, the prolongation of the war has been a disaster for the Syrian people — and especially for Christians.  The Washington Post reports today on the religious cleansing being conducted by the radical Islamists that now dominate the rebellion:

When radical Islamists tore down a cross and hoisted a black flag above a church in the northern Syrian city of Raqqah last week, it underscored the increasingly hostile environment for the country’s Christians.

Although Syria is majority Sunni Muslim, it is one of the most religiously and ethnically diverse countries in the Middle East, home to minorities including Christians, Druze and Shiite-offshoot Alawites and Ismailis. But the country’s conflict, now in its third year, is threatening that tapestry.

While the primary front in the war has pitted Sunni against Shiite, Christians are increasingly caught in the firing line. The perception that they support the government — which is in many cases true — has long made them a target for rebel groups. Now, Christians say radical Islamist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) , an affiliate of al-Qaeda, are determined to drive them from their homes.

“The Christian community in Syria is stuck between two fires,” said Nadim Nassar, a Syrian from Latakia who is director of the Awareness Foundation, a U.K-based interfaith charity. “One fire is a corrupt regime, and everybody agrees there needs to be a change. And on the other hand, there’s a fragmented and diverse opposition on the ground who can’t control jihadist forces coming from outside the country.”

Syria is not the only place in the wider region where Christians are being targeted. Coptic churches in Egypt have been attacked, while Pakistan last week experienced the deadliest church bombing in the country’s history. The militants who attacked a mall in Nairobi last month singled out non-Muslims.

The rash of assaults has led some to question the future of Christianity in Syria, where adherents make up about 10 percent of the population, and in the wider Middle East.

Make no mistake about it — the radical Islamist demands for a new Caliphate go hand in hand with their mission to purge the region of all religious minorities, especially Christians and Jews. Israel can defend itself, but most Christian communities are small, dispersed, and vulnerable.  The Christians of Iraq have largely fled to Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, and those that went to the latter are now refugees again in the other two nations.  Christians are disappearing from traditional homelands in the West Bank as well under economic pressures rather than direct hostile action.  We are seeing the rapid increase in a forced expulsion of some of Christianity’s first communities, which far predate the sects that seek to displace and eradicate them.

Lee Stranahan has done great work in reporting on the Syrian Christian refugee issue.  Be sure to keep up with his latest reporting, and donate to his efforts if you can.

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