Hopes were always low for the Geneva II talks with Syria, and they have indeed stalled. Even the imperturbable mediator Lakhdar Brahimi is pessimistic. Of course, the negotiations were built on a mass of contradictions, foremost the June 2012 demand that, as a precondition, Bashar al-Assad acquiesce in his own demise. As a regime supporter told The New York Times on February 18, 2014, "The government delegation would have a hard time persuading its base, including the powerful security services and military, to talk about dismantling or reshaping the government…when they believe they are gaining on the ground." The regime only agreed to some local ceasefires, and there is little incentive for it to concede anything to the rebels. This stance has actually led to a change in leadership — but on the rebel side. General Salim Idriss, U.S.-backed leader of the moderate wing of the Free Syrian Army’s military command, was voted out by the Supreme Military Council in favor of the little-known Abdul-Illah al-Bashir. This shift occurred just before an arms delivery that is reported to include anti-aircraft weapons. The picture was further clouded by a vote among the FSA revealing a sharp division of loyalty among the rank and file. The "good" rebels have even more on their hands than a two-front war against al-Qaeda and the regime; there are countless other guerrillas in the mix.
The United States does not know whom to trust. Idriss had lost credibility in December, when arms warehouses under his control were seized by Islamist rebels. He is a sworn enemy of ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), but he did not fully support the units fighting against them either. Washington is reportedly resuming delivery of food and medicine, bypassing the command hierarchy, who lack unity, strategy and successful tactics — and particularly against Assad’s crude barrel bombs. These terror weapons kill, maim and drive survivors out of their hiding places, shell-shocked and starving, onto the open road or into the arms of the government. The rebels have no means of protecting them. The Russians have won their bet: Assad is preferred over the jihadists. The neighborhood political environment is also a bit less hostile to him now that the army is back in control in Egypt. And Turkey has even launched military strikes inside Syria against jihadist forces, a major turnabout.
Ironically, infighting among rebel groups is often made worse by the infusion of more resources. The competition is producing hard-bitten fighters of diverse origin, many from Western countries. An American jihadi (nom de guerre, al-Amriki) is the star of a popular video, providing some reason for Western officials like Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to be able to claim that there will be blowback when this Syrian campaign is over, no matter how it ends. Officials can simply point to 9/11, as if the government were as clueless today as in 2001, when the CIA’s Presidential Daily Brief warned the Bush administration, "Bin Laden determined to strike in the US." Today, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper does not consider terrorists spilling out of Syria a core threat to national security. He testified to Congress February 13 about what keeps the Intel community up at night: cyber attacks by states. Terrorism by individuals did not crack the top five.
There is a great deal of plumping for war in the major media, though the best chance seems to have been missed, if it ever existed. A recent report from CSIS even argues for a shock-and-awe demonstration of some sort, to at least scare people. But the military have not taken the bait, and President Obama has read the polls: there is no public constituency for war. The Iraq debacle has not yet aged off. However, some premier journalists are touting recipes for peace in the region, to be backed by Washington and Moscow. Here is David Ignatius in The Washington Post: "Iran will have to reverse its nuclear program. The Sunni nations, meanwhile, will have to embrace reforms that can break the power of Muslim extremism. This Sunni empowerment will require a new Egyptian president who’s confident enough to stop jailing journalists, and a Saudi Arabia that’s prepared to move ahead under the next generation of leaders." Whew! The gaping hole in this project is, of course, the time frame. Pundits were caught completely off-guard by the upheavals of spring 2011, as well as by the backsliding that followed.
The first item in the above list is being negotiated, as the danger of nuclear proliferation is of global strategic concern, and limiting Iran’s nuclear program would be a win for the Obama administration politically (see our symposium proceedings). The president would probably also like to deliver some sort of equitable deal for the Palestinians, but he stands to lose electorally if he puts a foot wrong on Israel. Despite recent setbacks for AIPAC, defying the lobby could hurt Democrats down the road and perhaps even dent the Hillary juggernaut. Besides, the Palestinian cause has little resonance in the elite press. There are few reminders of the refugees the U.S. government is directly responsible for: almost five million Palestinians living in abject poverty in camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, forced out of their homes by colonists from abroad.
The United States might perhaps have made more reasoned decisions back in 1947-48. A new book by John Judis — Genesis: Truman, the United States, and the Arab/Israeli Conflict — is a reminder of how much emotional pressure was brought to bear on the fair-minded U.S. president to override national interest and recognize the new state of Israel. Truman considered religious states a European problem that America had solved, but some close friends, as well as electoral considerations, prevailed. This set up a domestic political reality for every subsequent president, though now there is open rebellion in the Jewish community over how much protection to afford an Israeli government that has strayed from American norms, values and interests. Even Tom Friedman of The New York Times is talking up boycott, divestment and sanctions as tools the Palestinians should consider using in a "third intifada" in lieu of rocks. His prestige makes him almost untouchable, but he deserves great credit for mentioning BDS in the paper of record.
Few American political leaders will risk their careers by joining Friedman. But here is some brave truth-telling from retired Marine General James Mattis: "I paid a military and security price every day as commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel, and that [alienates] all the moderate Arabs who want to be with us because they can’t come out publicly in support of people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians."
In this issue, we are pleased to present a special section of articles from a workshop jointly organized by the Center for Contemporary Middle East Studies at the University of Southern Denmark and the Center for Strategic Studies and Political Science at the University of Jordan, the site of the May 2013 event. Four well-known academic analysts take on various aspects of "The EU and Strategic Relations with the MENA Region in a Post-Arab-Revolt Context." I am grateful to the principal organizer, Peter Seeberg, professor of political science at Southern Denmark, for his tireless efforts on this project. [Peter Seeberg, "EU Strategic Interests in Post-Qadhafi Libya: Perspectives for Cooperation"; Tamirace Fakhoury, "The EU and Lebanon in the Wake of the Arab Uprisings"; Curtis R. Ryan, "Jordanian Foreign Policy and the Arab Spring"; Sally Khalifa Isaac,"The Egyptian Transition, 2011-13: How Strategic to Europe?"]