John Kerry is back in Vienna today as Washington and its regional allies attempt to forge some kind of face-saving deal that won’t result in absolute humiliation with regard to the conflict in Syria.
Kerry held talks last week with his “friends” from Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia in an effort to begin working towards a diplomatic solution. Washington’s top diplomat pledged to keep the lines of communication open and in a notable shift, this week’s talks include Iran. Washington and Riyadh had previously refused to consent to Tehran’s participation but given the fact that Iranian soldiers and Iran-backed militias are doing most of the fighting on the ground, excluding them ultimately became impossible.
As we reported late last month in “US Syria Strategy Officially Unravels: Kerry Admits Timetable For Assad Exit Is Completely Unknown”, Washington has been forced to completely abandon its hardline stance on the ouster of Bashar al-Assad. What was once an unequivocal “Assad must go” policy had by late September morphed into an admission that the timetable for regime change in Syria is now completely indeterminate thanks to Russia and Iran’s stepped up efforts to rout rebels and militants on the way to bolstering government forces.
Now, even the Western media have been forced to admit that Moscow and Tehran have effectively compelled the US to abandon the idea that Syria will soon be governed by a Western puppet. Here’s WSJ:
The Obama administration entered a crucial round of international talks on Syria’s war prepared to accept a deal that leaves President Bashar al-Assad in place for several months or more during the transition to a new government.
The U.S. shift on the dictator’s future caps months of backtracking on the most significant obstacle to a resolution of the Syrian conflict. While U.S. officials once argued Mr. Assad couldn’t take part in a political transition, they have gradually eased that stance, eventually signaling he wouldn’t have to step down immediately. Now they are planning to negotiate the question of his future in talks being held Friday in Vienna.
The White House hasn’t publicly set a time frame for Mr. Assad’s departure to give U.S. negotiators room to maneuver in the Vienna talks, officials said.
Well, no. The White House “hasn’t publicly set a time frame for Mr. Assad’s departure” because Mr. Assad isn’t likely to depart unless Moscow decides that’s the best course. Anyway, back to WSJ:
in advance of negotiations, administration officials discussed a resolution with U.S. allies, including Turkey, that would allow Mr. Assad to remain in place after a cease-fire in the 4½-year conflict.
The resolution the U.S. is seeking would include a cease-fire and would “not prejudge the Assad question,” a senior administration official said.
The approach reflects new realities imposed in Syria by Russia and Iran, which have intensified military operations to bolster Mr. Assad. It also follows recent challenges faced by the American-led fight against Islamic State.
Russia and Iran are taking part in Friday’s conference, along with Mr. Assad’s Arab adversaries. In all, the meeting brings together more than a dozen European and Middle Eastern foreign ministers. The inclusion of Iran represents a change after the U.S. and Saudi Arabia blocked Tehran’s participation previously.
Russia and Iran have demanded Mr. Assad retain power. America’s Arab allies are demanding a clear timeline for when Mr. Assad would step down, U.S. and Arab officials said.
So once again, say what you will about Assad, but the reality is this: Washington, Riyadh, Ankara, and Doha are “demanding” that the West be able to dictate who runs a sovereign country while Moscow and Tehran are insisting that it isn’t up to the West.
But thanks to the fact that the US is fighting via proxies while Russia and Iran are involved directly, Washington has no bargaining power (something else we were keen on emphasizing as soon as Russia began flying sorties from Latakia):
Secretary of State John Kerry, who arrived in Vienna on Thursday, intensified discussions in recent weeks with Mr. Assad’s biggest opponents, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, to try to gain their support for a diplomatic resolution that would allow the Syrian dictator to stay in power during a transition, these officials said.
The U.S. wields limited influence on the battlefield, making it critical for Washington to persuade those three countries and others to join in the effort because of the power they exercise over the rebel groups they support.
Yes, the "rebel groups they support", rebel groups otherwise known as Sunni extremists who The White House wants you to believe are to varying degrees "moderate" with al-Nusra (i.e. al-Qaeda) on the "moderate" end of the "stark raving mad" continuum, and ISIS on the "extreme" end. But as we outlined in "'Proxy' War No More: Qatar Threatens Military Intervention In Syria Alongside "Saudi, Turkish Brothers," Washington's regional allies aren't yet ready to throw in the towel and it could well be that rather than concede to the preservation of Iran's "Shiite crescent," Saudi Arabia and Qatar will turn Syria into Yemen with a sequel to Operation "Decisive Storm":
The U.S. diplomacy is placing the Arab states and Turkey in a bind, as many of them have provided significant arms and funding to the largely Sunni rebel forces seeking to overthrow Mr. Assad.
Saudi Arabia, in particular, has publicly criticized Russia’s military intervention in Syria, arguing it could strengthen Mr. Assad and Shiite-dominated Iran, his closest Middle East ally.
The critical question now is whether the US is about to lose control of its "friends" in the region. That is, Washington is once again dabbling in the Sunni-Shiite divide and that is a dangerous game to play. It could well be that even if The White House elects to call it a day on the Assad ouster plans, Saudi Arabia and Qatar will decide to go it alone in order to keep Tehran from cementing its regional influence.
If that happens, Washington will have to choose between supporting Riyadh and avoiding a war between NATO and the Russians.
In other words, if you thought The South China Sea episode was a gut check for the Pentagon, "you ain't seen nothin' yet."