It is now clear that the preliminary meeting at Geneva this week of Russia, the United States and the United Nations for setting a date for the Geneva-2 conference on Syria ended inconclusively. The meeting couldn’t agree when the Geneva-2 should be held or who would be invited. A UN statement said that Russian Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and his US counterpart John Kerry will meet next week and further talks are expected to follow.
The United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi who chaired the meeting urged the US and Russia to «contain this situation that is getting out of hand, not only in Syria but also in the region». But he ruled out the possibility of holding the Geneva – 2 in July. Other diplomatic sources have doubted if the conference could be held «earlier than August or September».
The sticking point is apparently the failure to agree on potential participants at the conference. However, that is only an alibi – although, it is partly true to the extent that there is no unified Syrian opposition despite the robust efforts by the US and its allies to cobble together one and Russia is insisting on Iran’s participation.
The real reason behind the inability to hold the Geneva-2 conference, however, is the shift in the stance of the US toward focusing in immediate terms on the military track through the coming several weeks or months – predicated on the expectation that the Syrian regime can be put on the back foot by tilting the military balance on the ground first – before embarking on the track of political dialogue. In sum, the thinking is to negotiate from a position of strength.
All available indications through the past week point toward such a thinking. The plain truth is that although the British prime minister David Cameron announced after the two-day summit in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, last Tuesday that the G8 leaders reached a consensus over convening the Geneva 2 conference and will work to bring the opposite sides to the negotiating table as soon as possible, the trends are increasingly pointing in the opposite direction.
The white lie that has been floated by Washington to justify the Obama administration’s decision to supply arms to the Syrian rebels is still being shamelessly parroted – namely, that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons. This is despite widespread scepticism that the US’ claims are unfounded and notwithstanding the stance taken by the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon that the allegations cannot carry credibility unless and until the evidence has been made public and subjected to proper analysis.
Earlier in the week, on Monday, as a White House readout put it, President Barack Obama phoned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan to discuss developments in Syria «including the regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people… [and] the need to provide additional support to the Syrian coalition and the Supreme Military Council to improve their effectiveness». Obama’s phone call to Erdogan followed the meeting of the foreign ministers of the «Friends of Syria» in Doha on Saturday where they resolved to back the opposition with all necessary military equipment – «provide urgently all the necessary materials and equipment» – to tilt the military balance against the government forces.
In retrospect, President Vladimir Putin’s strong words at the G8 summit fell on deaf ears. If anything, the US is encouraging its key allies to raise the ante. This is evident from the exceptionally hard line that the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal took at the joint press conference with the visiting US secretary of state John Kerry following their talks in Jeddah on Tuesday. Faisal just stopped short of a direct military intervention such as imposing a no-fly zone over Syria.
He said, «The Syrian people must be given international protection and military assistance so that they can at least defend themselves against these abominable crimes… Syria is facing a double-edged attack, it is facing genocide by the government and an invasion from outside… a massive flow of weapons to aid and abet that invasion and genocide. This must end». Faisal was harsh on Iran and Russia and he ruled out point blank any role for the Syrian regime in any transition. «The regime’s illegitimacy eliminates any possibility of it being part of any arrangement or playing any role whatsoever in shaping the present and the future,» Faisal underlined.
Meanwhile, Kerry is on a regional tour of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, which aims at coordinating the role of the US’ allies in the pursuit of the military track… Washington has also raised the pitch of rhetoric, matching Faisal’s, with the outgoing ambassador to the UN Susan Rice (who is about to take over as the new national security advisor to Obama) alleging in an interview with the BBC that the Security Council’s «inaction on Syria is a moral and strategic disgrace that history will judge harshly».
To be sure, the US moves will inflame the conflict in Syria in the coming weeks. Increasingly, what lies ahead seems a replay of the Libyan tragedy, leading to large-scale bloodshed and destruction. The conflict may turn out to be even more savage than Libya insofar as a question mark really needs to be put on the capacity of the Syrian rebels to change the power balance – lest it is forgotten that even in Libya, the western forces directly took part in the fighting to defeat the regime and the Libyan rebels simply appeared as the icing on the cake at appropriate moments. In fact, if the Syrian rebels began losing ground in the recent months, it has been for a variety of reasons and to that extent, the new thrust practically amounts to «legitimizing» the clandestine supplies that have been going on for some two years already. Suffice to say, this shift in the US policy would only protract the conflict and fully destroy Syria.
What explains the US strategy shift? Evidently, Washington has concluded that a direct intervention has become necessary to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime and the objective of regime change cannot be realized by merely arming the rebels. It seems a matter of time before some sort of no-fly zone is imposed. The concerted attempt to demonize the Syrian regime by pointing finger at it for allegedly using the chemical weapons is reminiscent of the build-up leading to the US intervention in Iraq in 2003. Now, in the case of Syria, as was then in the case of Iraq in 2003, evidence is being fragmented to justify the military invasion.
Doesn’t the US know that it could open a Pandora’s Box since the fate of Syria and the Middle East are inextricably linked? Of course, it does. But then, that is precisely the point why a US intervention in Syria could be on the cards. In a candid interview with the National Interest magazine last week, former US national security advisor and well-known strategic thinker Zbigniew Brzezinski probed the reasons why Obama allowed himself to be drawn into the Syrian problem. Brzezinski spoke darkly of a «mysterious aspect» to all of this.
He obliquely hinted at the Obama administration due to the domestic political pressure picking up the threads of the US’ Middle Eastern policy from where they were left by President George W. Bush, namely, the old neocon agenda to «create a larger Fortress Israel» that would be pivoted on a regime change in Iraq, followed by the overthrow of the Syrian and Iranian regimes.
At any rate, Brzezinski saw it as meaningful that Obama swung for a regime change in Syria «somewhere back in 2011 or 2012 – an election year incidentally». Brzezinski lamented that Obama is yet to offer a cogent explanation to the American people why he suddenly decided in the middle of an election year that «Syria had to be destabilized and its government overthrown».
The hint was that Obama acted under pressure from the pro-Israel lobby in the US, which used to dictate Bush’s Middle Eastern policies. And, with great poignancy, Brzezinski pointed out that both the US and Israel could be seriously miscalculating. He said the high probability is that the «byproduct» of the push for regime change in Syria will be that «without understanding that the hidden complexities are going to suck us [US] in more and more, we’re going to be involved in a large regional war eventually, with a region even more hostile to us than many Arabs are currently».
Brzezinski warned Israel that such an «elimination of American influence in the region,» would leave Israel «ultimately on its own,» since a hostile region like that cannot be policed, even by a nuclear-armed Israel. «The notion that one can control a region from a very strong and motivated country, but of only six million people, is simply a wild dream».