Syria is no longer an American priority

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A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (C-R) arrives along with Grand Mufti Ahmed Hassun (C-L) a meeting with a group of various religious clerics from across Syria. (Photo: AFP-HO/SANA)

By: Sami Kleib

Published Monday, April 28, 2014

A few days ago, the United Nations (UN) Secretary General Ban Ki Moon requested a meeting for the international quartet on Syria. His goal was to trigger consultations for holding Geneva III. The shocking response from the US Secretary of State John Kerry was: “Now is not a good time, the current priority is Ukraine.”

The quartet committee consists of the UN, the US, Russia and the European Union (EU). All these parties seem unable at this point to revive the Geneva Conference or discuss any negotiated solution for the Syrian crisis. This was reinforced by everyone’s belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin has become more rigid on the Syrian issue after the crisis in Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov now makes several statements a week in support of the official Syrian point of view. One day he criticizes the “West’s duplicity and hypocrisy,” regarding Syrian chemical weapons, and another day he condemns the West’s willingness to recognize the Ukrainian elections without political reforms while rejecting the same conditions for Syria. The tough diplomat makes statements opposing the arming of rebel groups on Syrian soil, alluding to states whose role has become known in that regard.

There is clear Russian support for the nomination of President Bashar al-Assad for a third term. Moscow gave the same support to General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt and to President Abdulaziz Bouteflika in Algeria. Before any of that, Lavrov himself expressed from the center of Baghdad, his country’s support for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s war on terrorism.

Moscow went even further. It expanded its oil deals with Tehran. The Russians told whoever would listen that they do not recognize US sanctions but only sanctions by the UN Security Council. Washington was worried. Its treasury secretary said that any deal might fall under US sanctions. The warning was followed by a preliminary agreement between Moscow and Tehran valued at $20 billion stipulating that Moscow supply Tehran with equipment and Russian goods in return for Iranian oil.

It is not easy for Europe and the US to think of the possibility of Moscow’s success on more than one front. Oil and gas from Iran and Algeria raise concern. These two states do not fall within the scope of NATO. One of them is a strong ally of the Syrian regime and the second defends it diplomatically. It is not an easy matter for the US and the West to accept that Russia, once again, will have a serious foothold in Iraq and Egypt.

US diplomacy sprang into action. America rushed to support Bouteflika at the height of his electoral campaign. It opened the door for Egypt’s foreign secretary, Nabil Fahmy, who begins this week important political and security meetings in Washington.

No doubt that Fahmy, who was a powerful force behind pushing his country towards the Russian alternative, today visits Washington proudly. Sisi succeeded in pushing the US administration to reopen its treasury and forget the phase of toppling the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Mursi. Interests always trump principles. Who still remembers the Arab Spring?

Because interests prevail over principles, there is no rush to hold Geneva III. A few days ago, Lavrov stressed in the presence of Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil the importance of returning to Geneva. Perhaps he realizes that this would be embarrassing for Washington. Russia might become more stringent in the next meeting.

Syrian opposition figure Michel Kilo who has ties with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the US and Turkey says: “It appears that the Russians do not support a political solution, they do not support the interim governing body and they do not support the transition to a democratic system.” Whoever meets Kilo these days will hear that “the Europeans themselves admit that Obama let down everyone with his ineffective and weak policies.”

On May 8, nine European countries will meet in Brussels with representatives from the US, Turkey, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. The goal is to confront “the disaster of the return of jihadis from Syria to their home countries and the continued passage of some of them towards Syria.” A European diplomat who formerly facilitated the passage of fighters, takfiris and terrorists to Syria is the one who characterized the matter as a “disaster.” I wonder what changed his mind.

The US and the West are in a real bind now. The same folly committed in Afghanistan with the Taliban is repeated in Syria. Terrorist cells began to appear in some of the countries that exported them in the first place. Security contacts with Damascus, Tehran, Hezbollah, Ankara, Baghdad and Amman are no longer adequate. A high-ranking French diplomat who is a veteran of the Syrian case goes to Iran. Some believe that it is a new attempt to probe further. Tehran happily opens its doors. The Iranian capital has become the destination for those seeking a solution or save face. The idea of “heroic flexibility” that Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei adopted in terms of his country’s negotiations with the West on the nuclear issue applies to other issues as well.

Tehran supports Damascus in developing security contacts into diplomatic contacts. The Iranians told the French that there is no discussion of presidential elections in Lebanon without Syria. They also told them that it is necessary to allow the presidential elections in Syria to take place. Perhaps the French understood on their own that Iranian support contributed in helping Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the last election. The consequences of that might appear later on in the Turkish position vis a vis the Syrian border.

Militarily, information confirms that Saudi funding and French arming continue. An Arab official reports that a retired French admiral made a deal recently for $450 million for weapons that passed through the Aqaba in Jordan.

In brief, the Syrian scene is as follows: gradual US abandonment, giving priority to combating terrorism and dealing with Assad’s re-election as a fait accompli.

Based on the above, a visitor to Europe might hear these days from European officials or from Lakhdar Brahimi himself who suggests that there is no need to make a big issue of the Syrian presidential election. It is more important to focus on what is going on the ground. A few days from now, Brahimi will try to intensify efforts in New York to push the Geneva III wheel into motion but he may not get a lot of attention. No one is compelled to change the international priority at this stage, which is Ukraine.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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