Supreme Leader Discusses Geneva Negotiations with His Fighters

The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (seated) looks out before a massive rally of enthusiastic Basij commanders.  Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari, stands to the left of Khamenei

Annually, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, meets with large rallies of Basij (government sponsored volunteer fighters) and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) fighters.  At those rallies, Khamenei usually makes an impassioned speech in recognition of the fighter’s devotion to God, their dedication to the revolution, and their commitment to Holy Defense and conveys his appreciation for their allegiance to him.  Khamenei also has the opportunity to become energized by looking out at the nearly endless rows of fighters, see the revolutionary zeal and patriotic fervor in their eyes.  Through their emotional expressions and responses to his speeches, the Basij and IRGC fighters convey to Khamenei that they would be ready at any moment to sacrifice themselves in Iran’s defense.

Among the issues Khamenei discussed in a speech before the audience of Basij commanders in the picture above were the concept of heroic flexibility, US policy, the Geneva talks, and the nuclear program.  On heroic flexibility, Khamenei approved of the IRGC’s explanation of his concept.  He rejected the notion expressed by some media spokesmen that heroic flexibility meant retreat.  Khamenei then defined heroic flexibility as “an artificial maneuver and utilizing various methods to achieve various goals and ideals of the Islamic system.”  Interestingly, that seems to imply heroic flexibility is a deception.

On US relations, Khamenei explained “This Islamic system does not even have hostility with the American nation, even though the American government is arrogant, hostile, and hateful towards the Iranian nation and the Islamic system.”  This is a less gentle phrasing of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s comment at the University of Virginia on February 20, 2013, that “One of America’s most incredible realities continues to be that we are a country without any permanent enemies.”  Yet, clearly Khamenei and his government’s animus toward the US remains considerable.  Khamenei asserted that the struggle against the US and Western powers was an historic and Koranic mission.  He declared “What is at the opposite side of the Islamic system and what the Islamic system opposes is ‘Arrogance’ (which is a term Khamenei uses to refer to the US).”  He reminded the Basij commanders that “The great Iranian nation and the chosen system of his nation fundamentally took shape and grew in protest to Arrogance and its causes.  Therefore, with attention to the aforementioned characteristics, Arrogance is fundamentally unable to tolerate this system other than becoming hopeless of defeating it.”  Khamenei apears to be expressing the view that concessions and compromise by the Obama administration was expected given its inability to defeat Iran.  Moreover, there exists a belief in Tehran that US President Barack Obama wants to avoid using US military force against Iran at nearly any cost.  Obama wanted a deal; an historic agreement. The decision of the White House to use back channels and secret talks to reach that agreement despite engaging with Britain, France Germany, Russia, and China in multiparty negotiations with Iran and the concessions made on economic sanctions levied by the US Congress have somewhat substantiated that notion that the US was desperate.

As for the Geneva nuclear negotiations, Khamenei, in his most powerful statement of the day, declared that while he did not intend to invest himself into the talks, he rejected any notion of retreat.  He made it clear that the negotiators had no right to retreat even one step from Iran’s red lines.  In his own words, “I have emphasized the rights of the Iranian nation, including its nuclear rights, and I must insist there not be even one step of retreat from the national rights of Iran.” 

Make no mistake, that in Geneva, from Khamenei’s perspective, what is being negotiated over is economic sanctions relief, not Iran’s nuclear program.  Based on these statement by Khamenei (translated by Will Fulton, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute) before the Basij commanders, optimism over eventually dismantling or even shutting down Iran’s nuclear program may very well be misplaced.  Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, before being elected, shared his view of the thinking behind Iranian relations with the US.  In one of his books on foreign policy, Rouhani writes that modernity has failed, and that Christians in the West gave in to secularism without a fight.  He writes further that the US and the Islamic Republic are in permanent conflict.  Some policy analysts and other observers have said the US and Iran have turned the page and begun a new chapter.  While the Obama administration got the historic agreement it sought with Iran, it is not clear as yet that the agreement constructed was truly the best one that could be reached or one that will be sustainable.  As far as Khamenei, the IRGC, and the Basij commanders such as those pictured above are concerned, the Geneva accord will only impact Iran’s nuclear program, or will be sustainable, if they want that to be so.

Kerry Presses Iran to Prove Its Nuclear Program Is Peaceful; The White House Presses Kerry to Make a Deal

In a November 18, 2013 Reuters article entitled “Kerry Presses Iran to Prove Its Nuclear Program Peaceful,” Lesley Wroughton reported that US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to lower expectations for the next round of talks in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear program. Kerry’s comments, which were made at a press conference in Washington DC, ran counter to the optimism expressed after the previous round of talks one week before.  Currently, the talks seek to reach an interim agreement to allow time to negotiate a comprehensive, permanent agreement that would end a ten year impasse and provide assurances to the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China that Iran’s nuclear program will not produce weapons.  Wroughton quoted Kerry as stating “I have no specific expectations with respect to the negotiation in Geneva except that we will negotiate in good faith and we will try to get a first-step agreement.”  Wroughton reported Kerry hoped “Iran will understand the importance of coming there prepared to create a document that can prove to the world this is a peaceful program.”  Kerry declined to discuss details of the proposal under discussion.  Kerry was also reported as stating: “I am not going to negotiate that in public.  We all need to be respectful of each others’ processes here and positions—and so it’s best to leave that negotiation to the negotiating table.”

The restraint Kerry wisely displayed by refusing to discuss the substance of upcoming talks contrasted greatly with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s public discussion of the talks.  On November 17, 2013, Zarif presented his idea for overcoming the stumbling block of enrichment in the upcoming round of negotiations.  The US argues that Iran does not intrinsically have the right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Iran claims that it retains that right.  To get around this sticking point, Zarif reportedly explained to the ISNA news agency in Iran, “Not only do we consider that Iran’s right to enrich is unnegotiable [sic], but we see no need for that to be recognized as ‘a right,’ because this right is inalienable and all countries must respect that.”  In Zarif’s statement lies a major problem concerning trust among the negotiating parties.  Unless the necessary work is done on uranium enrichment at the talks in Geneva to a concrete agreement, the negotiations may be in jeopardy.  Moreover, unless the US takes a consistent course of assertive diplomacy toward Iran, it will most likely end up with an agreement it does not really want and may not be sustainable.  Even if a nuclear agreement of some type is preferred by the Obama administration over military response or further economic sanctions, the best agreement possible within the interests of the US and its allies still must be sought.

Geneva: An Assertive Posture Morphs into Acquiescence

There was considerable expectation created in Washington over the potential of negotiations with Iran given the eloquent case Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made for opening a dialogue with the US before and after his inauguration.  There was also skepticism expressed in the US, mainly by Kerry.  He made it clear that the warming a relations between the US and Iran did not mean that the US would back off its demands on Iran’s nuclear program.  Kerry was also unequivocal about his willingness to shut down any talks if he discerned an effort to stall, misdirect, or deceive through the process.  When Zarif suggested that the US should bring proposals to an October bargaining session, Kerry bristled and rejected the idea, stated at a press conference that the Islamic Republic still had not responded to the last offer put forth by the US, Russia, and others in February.  In some quarters of the US government, the increased requests for proposals and other deliverables from the US by Iran and the effort to shift nuclear away from bilateral engagement with the US talks to broader negotiations with the Europeans and Russia was itself an Iranian effort to stall the negotiations.

However, as the process got underway, there was a perceptible shift in the US position.  US negotiators seemed to fall over themselves just to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.  Talk of military action against Iran’s nuclear program became a distant memory.  Regarding the use of further economic sanctions, the Obama administration officials made it clear to the US Congress that they would not convince the Iranians to accede to US wishes.  The White House wanted to reach a deal.  Things proceeded in this way regardless of any further skepticism or even doubts Kerry might possess over Iran’s intentions and actions.  Kerry, a discreet and honorable man, who is bound by a sense of loyalty to his president as a secretary of state and to Obama personally, was prepared to press forward as directed.  The veil of skepticism that draped initial US efforts to establish dialogue with Iran was lifted.  Zarif apparently recognized the change in US attitude.  He was correct when he declared in the Iranian media, “There are indicators that John Kerry is inclined [to advance the nuclear matter in Iran’s interests].”

According to a November 18, 2013, New York Times article, weeks before the Geneva meeting at which hopes for an accord first soared and then sank, the US and Iran had opened a quiet two-way negotiation on a six-month interim deal. Officials close to Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister, told the New York Times that those bilateral discussions had produced an agreed US-Iranian text (with caveats) by the time the Geneva talks opened. When French officials became cognizant of it they were distressed.

When the US delegation arrived in Geneva on November 7, 2013, they explained that they wanted to construct a deal that would freeze the Iranian nuclear program, to buy some time to negotiate a more ambition deal, and to stop two separate methods of developing a bomb: one involving uranium and, the other plutonium.  In return, the Iranians would receive modest relief from sanctions, but not what they desperately desire, the ability to again sell oil around the world.  That would come only later as part of a final agreement that would require the Iranians to dismantle much of their nuclear infrastructure.  Talk at the bargaining table focused on those three areas: The heavy-water plant at Arak that the Iranians are building, where the outline agreement seemed to allow continued construction; language that appeared to concede prematurely an Iranian “right to enrich” or something close to it; and, what measures exactly Iran would take to dispose of its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium.  France, gravely concerned with all that had transpired, sought to close any loopholes.  French changes to the proposed agreement proved unacceptable to the Iranian delegation

The Way Forward: US Allies Are Flummoxed

According to a November 19, 2013, New York Times article, based on what is known about the agreement, it neither froze the Iranian program nor rolled it back.  Rather, only some elements are frozen, and the rollbacks in the initial agreement are relatively minor.  Iran would continue adding to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, meaning uranium enriched to reactor grade or less than 5 percent purity.  The US maintains that the overall size of Iran’s stockpile would not increase.  The November 19th article also explained that the reason for that is Iran would agree to convert some of its medium enriched uranium—fuel enriched to 20 percent purity is bomb grade—into an oxide form that is on the way to becoming reactor fuel.  Yet, that process can be easily reversed.

Based on the US effort, the French are convinced that the US seems a bit disinterested in the Middle East.  French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed his dismay in a recent speech, stating: “The United States seems no longer to wish to become absorbed by crises that do not align with its new vision of its national interest.”  He suggested this explained “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.”  Fabius stated further that a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and what he perceived as the current “rather isolationist tendency” in American public opinion.  He was concerned that no state could replace the US on the world stage.  Fabius lamented that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.”

In other Western capitals, the foreign policy of the Obama administration is driven by US President Barack Obama’s desire to establish his legacy.  The perception of a “legacy quest” approach taken by Obama and his administration on foreign policy has more than perturbed Putin.  In many capitals around the world, this signaled the US may be willing to make risky concessions in talks to reach agreements.

The Israelis are the most vocal critics of the proposed agreement and alarmed by its terms.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to the agreement has been reported by some Israeli analysts as being both substantive and political.  Reportedly, he truly believes that a deal lifting sanctions without fully halting enrichment and dismantling centrifuges would be a terrible mistake.  Netanyahu speaks as if he had some type of “intimation” based on his “dominant knowledge” of the Middle East, that Iran was engaged in a major deception.  Some Israeli security analysts disagree with Netanyahu’s views.  Yet, the weight of maintaining the security of Israel falls on his shoulders.  Perhaps it would behoove Netanyahu to consider that the US decision may have been impacted by his own uncongenial relationship with Obama despite the strong ties between the US and Israel.  He should consider the possibility that difficulties the Obama administration has had getting Israel to agree on Arab-Israeli peace process, Palestine, the occupation, settlements and other issues has influenced US actions.  Netanyahu must not be dismissive of the stinging memory of what some US analysts have described as a manipulation of the Bush administration policymakers by Israeli security officials on the Iraq issue.  Israeli intelligence findings, claims and pleas regarding Iraq supported the invasion that led to a very difficult period in US foreign and defense policy and a national nightmare for the American people.  There is also the somewhat expedient argument that Israel has “cried wolf” too often.

Divergence in Outlook

Two of the most imminent members of the foreign policy establishment, former US national security adviser in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and former national security adviser in the administrations of Presidents Gerald R. Ford and George H. W. Bush and US Air Force lieutenant general, Brent Scowcroft, issued a joint statement on November 18, 2013.  They explained, “should the United States fail to take this historic opportunity, we risk failing to achieve our nonproliferation goal and losing the support of allies and friends while increasing the probability of war.”  They repeated Obama’s central argument, “Additional sanctions now against Iran with the new the view to extracting even more concessions in the negotiations will risk undermining or even shutting down the negotiations.”

The joint statement was significant, given the knowledge and experience of Brzezinski and Scowcroft in international affairs.  However, while they centered their argument on negotiating in support of nuclear nonproliferation and to avoid the need for war, in Iran the argument for negotiations centered on the economic harm resulting from US coercive diplomacy.  The goal of the negotiations from Tehran’s view is not as much to find compromise on its nuclear program as it is to gain some compromise from the US on economic sanctions.  The nuclear program is seen by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as well as hardline political leaders and clerics, rightfully Iran’s to keep, and a necessity, even though it was the pursuit of the essentials for a nuclear capacity that has made Iran much poorer.

Assessment: A Lack of Confidence

There is a sense among US allies that negotiations with Iran have reached this point as result of the White House’s desire to seek political expedient solutions rather than well-considered approaches based on analysis.  To date, no publicly released US government data has indicated that Iran intends to develop a nuclear weapon.  Yet opinion among US allies who have assessed the situation falls mostly on the side that there are too many loopholes in the proposed agreement, and Iran could potentially run in the open field toward developing a nuclear device at will.  Israel in particular has been very vocal about its concerns over US attitude and effort regarding the Geneva negotiation process.  Iran is not pleased by Netanyahu’s statements regarding its negotiation efforts, but has left it to the US to manage its relationship with Israel on the matter.  To Iran’s satisfaction, the US has essentially ignored Israel’s concerns, as well as resisted calls for caution from allies, and has pushed forward with the Geneva talks and the current proposed interim agreement.

In addition to his joint statement with Brent Scowcroft on the Obama administration’s efforts in Geneva, Zbigniew Brzezinski used Twitter o November 19, 2013, to proffer that Obama and Kerry were the best foreign policy team since President George H. W. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker.  However, to be forthright, there are differences.  George H. W. Bush was elected to two terms as a Member of the US House of Representatives much as Obama was a elected to one term as a Member of the US Senate.  Yet, Bush also served as a diplomat (US Ambassador to the UN), an intelligence expert (Director of the CIA), and, a US Navy aviator (a combat torpedo bomber pilot in World War II).  Together with Secretary Baker, his chief diplomat, was amassed a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience that has not been matched since.  This is in stark contrast with the understanding of world affairs in the abstract from intelligence and the first-hand reports of others which Obama has acquired.  That may be the source of much concern in Paris, other European capitals, Tel Aviv and within the US Congress.

Indeed, there may very well be doubt whether Obama is able to fully synthesize the issues at hand concerning Iran’s nuclear program beyond the pure legalities of it.  At this point, the French appear to have appraised the Obama administration as unwilling to use military action to respond to Iran’s nuclear program.  The Iranians, themselves, may have also concluded that Obama was not predisposed toward declaring war regardless of how they might proceed.  The Iranians essentially see Obama as lacking the will to fight.  Given that perspective, eliminating sanctions, even if for six months would be preferred maintain the status quo.  While its figures were debunked by the US State Department given sanctions relief would be in effect for only six months and not a year, Israel continues to state the proposed deal would directly erase $15 billion to $20 billion of what was $100 billion the current sanctions are costing Iran annually, and lead to relief of up to $40 billion because of indirect effects.  In the meantime, with whatever short-term concessions on sanctions that might be allowed, the hardliners in Iran, particularly IRGC commanders, who are unfortunately convinced Obama is timorous, given recent declarations, may see a golden opportunity to develop a nuclear device.  Perhaps they believe what they would undoubtedly characterize as their “bold and decisive action,” could be reconciled with rest of the world through the negotiation powers of the Iranian Foreign Ministry.  They would call it all a spectacular victory for the Islamic Republic.  Whether the world truly faces that possibility remains to be seen.

Dehghan and Suleimani: Two Key Leaders in the Vanguard of Iran’s Defense

Minister of Defense Hossein Dehghan (on left in uniform) and Quds Force Commander General Qassem Suleimani (on right in mufti)

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

Among greatcharlie.com’s posts over the past few months have been a number of commentaries on US-Iran relations, the talks on Iran’s nuclear program in Geneva, US Syria policy, and Iranian Syria policy.  In that effort, considerable attention has been given to the backgrounds and activities of two men, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) General Hossein Dehghan, who is Iran’s Minister of Defense, and IRGC General Qassem Suleimani, who is the IRGC Quds Force Commander and Commander of Iranian Forces in Syria.  The above picture shows Dehghan and Suleimani together at the mourning ceremony for General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddan, chief of Iran’s ballistic missile program until his death on November 11, 2011.  Moghaddan was killed in an explosion at an IRGC depot about 25 miles west of Tehran.  Suspicions were raised in Iran and abroad that Israel or the US had some involvement in his killing. 

The above picture was acquired from Will Fulton, an analyst for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.  Fulton tweeted the picture to his Twitter followers on November 11, 2013.  Fulton publishes the very informative and fascinating blog, irantracker.org, which covers essentially every security issue of or pertaining to Iran.  His discovery of the picture through his research and his decision to share it evince the outstanding nature of Fulton’s efforts.

While mourning for their IRGC comrade, Dehghan and Suleimani talked together, as seen in the above picture.  Perhaps they were mulling over ways to respond to Moghaddan’s perceived assassination, or the success achieved so far by Iran and its allies in Syria, or the strengthening of Iran’s position in Iraq since the US departure; or, the surprising success Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has had in the Geneva nuclear talks.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has shaped his vision for Iran’s future as the premier power in the Middle East and a power worldwide based on the capabilities of such men as Dehghan and Suleimani.  These two men also pose the greatest threat to the US from Iran given their respective capabilities to formulate and implement successful plans for action, conventional and unconventional, globally, and given that they will truly serve to develop Iran’s military for the future.  Certainly, there will be a lot more discussion about both of them with regard to Iran’s security for years to come.

As the US Syria Policy Nears Failure, a Top US Syria Hand Offers Some Ideas

At greatcharlie.com, we seek to get beyond the “us-them” simplicities of foreign and defense policy issues and attempt to shed light upon the players and ideas that are moving events forward.  We collect articles, comments, and speeches, and interpret their meaning, determine their relative value to an issue at hand.  We then present our assessments to those who read our blog.  On October 25, 2013, I had the opportunity to attend a “not for attribution” presentation of a “top US Syria hand” at a renowned foreign policy think tank and membership organization in New York.  He provided advice on the transition process in Syria.  He was tapped for that role in the Syria process due to his extensive experience in the US Army, in the Defense Department, and in the State Department handling Middle East issues and his direct experience with Syria itself.  The views expressed by the speaker were forthright and at times surprising. They shed light on how and why the negotiation process has reached its current state.

Those attending the presentation by the speaker were informed in advance that the presentation was “not-for-attribution”, and no reference to his identity could be made.  (He will be referred to in this post as “the speaker.”) Arresting my urge to reveal the expert’s name has been made more difficult since I sense the perspectives the speaker offered would be more meaningful for our readers.  Moreover, it would prevent my report of his perspectives as one more recounting of the views of an anonymous, highly-placed, Obama administration official.  It is hoped that the majority of our readers will be able to consider the comments and reflect on the meaning with regard to the US policy on Syria.  Indeed, they allow one to conclude that US efforts would unlikely result in a peaceful resolution in Syria and an agreement on a transitional government in Syria that would not include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. .

The Syrian Civil War

Regarding the Syrian civil War, the speaker noted that the Syrian civil war was appalling in terms of the devastation and humanitarian crisis created.  There are over three million refugees residing outside of Syria. According to figures he acquired from the UN, there have been well over 150,000 civilians killed in the fighting.  On the ground, a de facto partition status existed.  In the western part of Syria, Assad has consolidated power. In the east, localized power centers exist, along with Jihadist linked to Al-Qaida.  In the northwest, Kurds have established a relatively autonomous area which is defending itself mostly from Jihadist groups.

The speaker noted that calling the Syrian conflict a civil war is misleading to most because it conjures the idea of a war of military engagements as in the US Civil War (1861-1865).  Although there are occasional engagements of military units in combat in urban areas, the speaker made it clear that the Syrian Civil War is in fact a war on civilians.  This has led to an enormous humanitarian catastrophe in which ethnic cleansing, extra-judicial executions, detentions, torture, injuries, rape, homelessness, starvation, sanitation, and disease, to name a few problems, were evident.

The speaker explained that a nationalist opposition movement had initiated the protests against the Assad regime and the civil war.  The nationalist movement, he point out, adhered to the idea of a Syrian identity based on citizenship, not religion or ethnicity.  However, this is no longer heard.  According to him, Jihadists have marginalized the nationalist opposition movement that.  He reported that the three main Jihadist units, comprised of many foreigners, were concentrating their efforts against Syrian civilians.  That has included the detentions, torture, and executions, already mentioned and deprivations of essentials for survival have been Jihadist tactics.  Yet, the speaker felt that the Assad’s regime use of lethal military force against civilians has been even more damaging.  The speaker explained that the humanitarian crisis was due to the Assad regime’s policy of using fire from artillery, rocket, jets, and helicopters in the midst of civilian areas without targeting.  It has been nothing but a terror campaign aimed at civilians.  Getting foreign humanitarian aid through to Syrian opposition held territory to deal with the multitude of suffering civilians has been impossible.  The regime will not allow this.

The speaker pointed to the fact that Russia and Iran were providing a great deal of support to the Assad regime.  However, he pointed to the fact that large sums of money were being providing to the Jihadists from Arab states, especially Kuwait at the moment.  Wanting to respond to violence by the Assad against their communities, Syrian men are drawn to opposition units that have sufficient resources to make an impact on the battlefield.  Those units are predominantly the Jihadist units.

To arrest the problem of the jihadist units, the US has initiated an effort to arm the Supreme Military Council (SMC), the military wing of the Syrian opposition.  Its commander in chief, General Salim Idris, would be the recipient of US funds, arms, and supplies, which he would be responsible for distributing the assistance among moderate, secular and capable Free Syrian Army units.  Since that effort began, the speaker noted that 13 Jihadist organizations have declared war on the Syrian National Council, the main political-wing of the opposition. The Jihadists are less engaged against Assad and more involved with establishing Islamist governments ruled under sharia law in areas under their control.  Nevertheless, the Obama administration still wants to focus on the SMC, hoping it will provide shares of aid to responsible groups.  The speaker felt the results of that effort had been lacking.  US officials allegedly revealed to the speaker that it is unknown whether that approach works or will ever have an impact.  Yet, the US insists on this approach.

Diplomacy

The Syrian chemical weapons agreement was viewed by the speaker as a good thing.  He alleged that all parties involved in Syria believed that it was good to see the Assad regime stripped of its inventory.  He saw the real challenge as being how to bridge the diplomatic process on chemical weapons agreement to the political process on Syria.  The speaker felt, however, that Assad regime’s chemical weapons use and stockpile was the top of an ugly ice berg and as long as the Assad regime remained in place and the large scale slaughter of civilians continued, it was hard to see how the diplomatic process could take hold in Syria.

The speaker stated that the Geneva process for Syria has presented as problem for the US Secretary of State John Kerry.  The aims of the process are to produce a negotiated, mutually consented transitional government in Damascus with full governing powers.  Geneva II set for November 23 and 24, 2013 will address transition in Syria.  The speaker, who was present at the Geneva conference on Syria on June 2012, revealed that consensus existed for transitional talks.  He noted, however, that consensus evaporated soon after that. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was not mentioned in the June 30, 2012 communiqué of foreign powers among the conference participants. He lamented that this was a critical mistake because in Syria, all powers reside in the person of Assad.  No deals could be made unless they had the approval of Assad.  As of now, according to the speaker, at Geneva II, Assad’s presidency also will not be on the table.  That is problematic because it allows Assad to still hold power.  The speaker indicated that without Assad’s leadership on the table, nothing can be accomplished at Geneva II.  He was certain that Russia will support the Assad regime’s position.  In his opinion, the greatest threat to the Assad regime to date was the threat of US airstrike due to its September 21, 2013 chemical weapons use.  However, the Assad regime dodged that threat.  He felt that the Assad regime now has no interest in transitioning itself out of power any time soon

Kerry will have trouble getting the Syrian opposition to come to Geneva II according to the speaker.  The Syrian opposition sees its constituency pounded by Syrian armed forces.  On the battlefield, the speaker observed that the Syrian opposition was losing in real terms.  The speaker doubted the Syrian opposition would come to the talks only to hear a lecture from Assad regime representatives.  The Assad regime has agreed to send a delegation to the talks led by the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Moallem.  To remedy this problem, in part, the speaker explained Kerry developed the “London 11.”  The London 11 serves to assure the Syrian opposition that the dialogue between its representatives and the Assad regime’s representatives will be about transition.  The speaker explained that the purpose of Geneva II must be affirmed by both parties.  However, for these reasons, he felt that Geneva II may not happen if the Assad regime does not reaffirm the purpose of the meeting.  The speaker noted that the Syrian opposition would meet in Istanbul to discuss the talks.  Yet, the Syrian National Council, which the speaker called the main political group of the Syrian opposition, said that it will not attend Geneva II and would not come even if a decision is made in Istanbul for all members of the Syrian opposition to attend.  The speaker noted that if the Assad regime shows up without wanting to discuss transition, and if Russia lends its support to the Assad regime’s position, the Geneva talks will fail.  The Syrian opposition will be more frustrated than it is now.  If diplomacy fails, the Assad regime may continue what it is doing with security assistance from Russia and Iran, as long as it is not using chemical weapons.

Using Military Power

What troubled the speaker about all of this was that the Obama administration was mostly concerned with Syria as an arms control problem which was simply a convenient approach to the issue.  The speaker viewed the problem as being much greater.  He did not believe that there could be some nuanced escape for Obama on Syria.  The speaker believed that Obama was caught in Syria just as US President Harry Truman was caught in Korea in 1950.  The speaker stated Obama was skeptical that military force would be useful in the Syrian context.  The speaker claimed this has been a fact since the civil war began.  According to the speaker, within the Obama administration, it was truly believed that Assad would simply fall away.  He explained by pointing to statements often expressed by officials about Assad: “Assad is toast!”; “The winds of change would sweep Assad off the stage!”; and, “Nature would take its course!” In his famous August 16, 2011 speech, Obama a made the direct statement, “Assad must go!”  The speaker explained that for the White House, it is important for the president to be on the right side of history.  Yet, he notes that there is also a fear to act.  There is concern that any sophisticated aid, in significant amounts, might end up in the wrong hands.

According to the speaker, the fact that the US effort in Syria was not in the hands of the Defense Department is telling.  The speaker claimed that only the Defense Department could handle the large scale delivery of military assistance to Syrian rebels and their training.  He saw the current effort as piecemeal, with only fifteen to twenty rebels being trained at a time.

Further the speaker pointed to the fact that no clear direction exists on Syria.  A national security directive providing clear objectives has not been produced.  The only objective annunciated so far has been to do whatever may support a decision by Assad to leave.  The speaker believed a national security directive would only put the administration on a road toward intervention that it did not want to be on.  As a political matter, the Obama administration recognized that winning Syria is not a goal of the US taxpayer. The US needs to formulate alternative responses in Syria that do not put civilians at risk.  The speaker believed the best bet for the US on Syria would have been a multifaceted strategy.

The Speaker’s Suggestions on the US Policy on Syria

The Speaker offered five ideas on how to approach the Syria issue.  First, he felt Kerry should pursue Geneva II as far as it goes.  Kerry must keep his eye on the purpose of Geneva II which is to launch political transition in Syria and put Assad out of business.  If Geneva II does not work, the process needs to be abandoned.

Second, the speaker suggested de-escalation as a possible partial remedy to Syria.  De-escalation was proposed before the peace process began.  It was among the preconditions Kofi Annan, the initial UN special envoy to the Syrian peace process, required the parties meet on the ground before a negotiation process could begin.  Those precondition also included mutual disengagement (ceasefire); no mass terror; and, news media access.  De-escalation was also mentioned in the communiqué of the London 11.

Third, while the speaker believed a political solution should be sought in Syria which included Assad’s removal from power.  He noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted Assad to preside in office for reasons that transcend Syria.  Assad managed to dodge his fall when airstrikes were averted by the Russians.  Russians have pushed the view that Assad did not launch chemical attacks, but the Jihadists in the Syrian opposition were responsible.  Once the US military strikes in response to the August 21st chemical attacks did not occur, Assad felt he would never have to leave.  The point Putin is trying to make is that Russia is on the rise again. Russia wants to be seen as supporting a friend to the end.  The world is asked to compare and contrast this approach with that of the US, with particular reference to former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.  The Iranians allegedly confided that to the speaker that they believed Assad used chemical weapons. The speaker claimed that he had a positive relationship with Iran due to his two-track work with Iran on other issues.  The Iranians allegedly told the speaker they were especially dismayed by this because of the terrible experience Iran had with chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War.  Nonetheless, for the Iranians, Syria provides a land bridge from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Hezbollah’s missiles are an important part of Iran’s response to Israel, if it acts aggressively toward Iran.

Fourth, the speaker believed military power could have a positive impact in Syria.  Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime believe there is a military solution in Syria.  Assad feels that he can hold out militarily with Russian and Iranian support.  However, the speaker admitted, the US believes that there is no politically acceptable military solution in Syria and that belief would be difficult to overcome.  He believes that military force could be useful to the extent that it could create a new military balance on the ground.  Apparently, some US officials sense it might be too late.

Fifth, the speaker believed that an effort needed to be made to prepare the Syrian opposition to govern in Syria.  The speaker explained that while the Syrian opposition has been recognized, no effort at all has been made to prepare it to govern in Syria. They do not stand as an alternative to the regime.  Until this is done, millions of Syrians will stay with Assad regime.  The speaker revealed that the Syrian opposition as the incoming leaders of the Syrian government in order to support the meeting in Morocco of the then new “Friends of Syria.”  No new attempt to do anything with the Syrian opposition has occurred since.  At the time the speaker made his presentation and for nearly three years, the current government in Damascus led by Assad is fully recognized by the US and the UN.  All power in Syria resides with Assad.

Assessment

Given the speaker’s comments, it seems the US is not fully committed on Syria.  The removal of Assad and his regime have been the expressed desire of the Obama administration, but it has not been established as part of a national security directive.  The administration’s efforts to date have demonstrated a lack of interest in Syria’s outcome relative to efforts of Russia and Iran.  That lack of interest not only exists in the executive branch, but also in the legislative branch as evinced in the US Congressional debate on military strikes in Syria in early September 2013.

The US has recognized the Assad regime to this date, and has never hinted that it would withdraw its recognition of it while Assad was in power.  The Syrian opposition, among many of its problems, was never politically astute, and could not fully appreciate the limited extent of the US commitment.  The Syrian opposition, with all of its infighting and shortcomings, is not prepared to take power in Syria.  No shadow government has been formed.  It takes weeks for the group simply to organize its meetings in Istanbul, to which members often refuse to attend.  The Syrian National Council, itself, has threatened not to come to the nest meeting in Istanbul.

At times, the Syria effort by the US, EU, and Arab states has appeared more like an effort to hassle the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran.  Assad was forced to surrender his chemical weapons stockpile.  However, it was done with international consensus.  Russia, Iran, and China were just as happy as the US to get chemical weapons out of Assad’s hands.  Assad’s main concern perhaps is no longer US intervention, but the Jihadist’s hold of Syrian territory.  If there is a break down in the Geneva talks, Iranian generals in Syria, led by General (Sharlashkar) Qassem Suleimani, may ramp up their efforts.  With more sophisticated and determined support from Russia, the Assad regime may be able to keep pace with Iranian forces present and change not only the military balance, but the entire situation on the ground.  (The reduction of Jihadist forces in Syria may be an effort to which Western powers may eventually be willing to lend their support.)

Given all that the speaker said, it appears that Obama administration stands willing to let the entire Syrian episode pass, while continuing a small, questionable assistance effort.  It is somewhat unlikely the administration would ever broach the use military force in Syria again.  The situation in Syria may very well just be allowed to linger until the end of the Obama administration.  A new US administration may implement a policy in which the US is more invested in Syria.  That might be the only chance for the Syrian opposition would see the robust US support it wants so badly.  With regard to nature taking its course on Assad, it appears that course has not force him out of Damascus, but rathr, has allowed him to remain in power.

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Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above).  He directs Iran’s efforts in Syria from Damascus, coordinating with the heads of the Syrian armed forces, and Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a militia commanders. The failure of the Geneva II talks would present Suleimani with the opportunity to use all the military power available to him to destroy the Free Syrian Army and Jihadist units without the threat of US military intervention.