WASHINGTON (AP) — As its struggles to craft a cease-fire in Syria’s civil war, the Obama administration has become increasingly torn between its loyalty to Turkey as a NATO ally and to its longtime Arab partner, Saudi Arabia, and the cold pragmatism of Russia. The result has been a confusing mix of shifting priorities that have exposed a policy toward Syria that few understand, and even fewer see working.
As Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Munich on Wednesday, Feb. 10, in search of compromises that could yield a truce and revive peace talks that were suspended before they really started, the administration is being pressed by all sides to clarify its strategy.
“We will approach this meeting in Munich with great hopes that this will be a telling moment,” said Kerry, whose peace push will coincide with Defense Secretary Ash Carter gathering in Brussels with NATO partners to hash out military options.
Meanwhile, the offensive continues on Syria’s biggest city, Aleppo, a rebel territory under bombardment by the Russian-backed Syrian military, complicating the already difficult task of convincing President Bashar Assad’s government to negotiate honestly with the opposition.
Brett McGurk, the Obama administration’s point-man for defeating the Islamic State, said Russia’s Aleppo offensive was having the perverse effect of helping the extremists by drawing local fighters away from the battle against IS and to the war against Syria’s government.
“What Russia’s doing is directly enabling ISIL,” McGurk told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The panel’s top Democrat echoed some of the frustration of his Republican colleagues with the larger U.S. strategy.
“It seems as if we’re only halfheartedly going after ISIS, and halfheartedly helping the (rebel) Free Syria Army and others on the ground,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. He urged a “robust campaign, not a tentative one, not one that seems like we’re dragging ourselves in … to destroy ISIS and get rid of Assad.”
Committee chairman Ed Royce said that the administration’s lack of censure on Russia for the Aleppo campaign has resulted in “predictable failure.”
Kerry emphasized on Tuesday that U.S. officials “are not blind to what is happening.” He said the Aleppo battle makes it “much more difficult to be able to come to the table and to be able to have a serious conversation.”
But the U.S. has staked its hopes for an end to the five-year civil war in Syria on peace talks and a negotiated transition that would result in Assad’s eventual departure, saying the American public has no appetite for a military solution.
The war has killed a quarter-million people and created the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. It also has allowed the Islamic State to flourish.
Yet Kerry underlined the U.S. dependency on Russia. He urged Moscow to “create an atmosphere within which you can actually have a negotiation.” And for his part, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday he had presented a “concrete” plan that the U.S. was now considering.
Left unsaid by Kerry was the growing American sentiment that the rebels and their primary backers share some of the blame.
The opposition walked out of peace talks last month in Geneva, the first attempt at a negotiation between the sides in two years. And Turkey, which badly wants Assad’s ouster and last year shot down a Russian plane that crossed into its territory, is believed to be calling the shots.
Despite public support for a NATO ally, American officials say they feel increasingly exasperated with Turkey’s support for some of the most hardline rebel groups and its failure to close its Syrian border to foreign fighters and equipment.
The Turks aren’t pleased with the Americans, either, particularly their support for Kurdish militants who they consider terrorists but have proved the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State in Syria.
“How can we trust you?” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked the U.S. last week.
Turkey meanwhile is building up infrastructure near the its border with Syria, though its intent is unclear.
“We came there to fight terrorists, and that will be guiding us,” Russia’s U.S. ambassador Sergey Kislyak, told reporters this week. He wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Russian jets having to attack Turkish ground forces if they enter the country, saying: “You’re asking me a question that I’m not ready to even discuss.”
The U.S. is being asked to explain if talks between Assad’s government and rebels are designed to produce the cease-fire, or would only start after the fighting ends. The U.S. has said both, angering opposition groups and their supporters like the Turks and Saudis.
Washington also has been unclear about what it sees as Assad’s future and whether he should maintain power. The ambiguity has emboldened Assad supporters — Russia and Iran — while confusing American allies in the Middle East, who are frustrated by a process that appears to lock the Syrian leader in place well into 2017 — and perhaps beyond.
And finally, the U.S. is struggling to explain how the whole negotiation would reinforce America’s own overriding mission: Defeating the Islamic State.
The administration has hinted it could work with a Syrian transition government toward that goal, though that may end up meaning cooperating with an administration in which Assad plays some role. At the same time, it is telling the region’s Sunni powers it will roll back Shiite Iran’s influence in the Middle East, personified in Assad and the Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Syrian troops. And the U.S. still clings nominally to the notion that Assad is the Islamic State’s “biggest magnet” — meaning any begrudging acceptance of him would be self-defeating.
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