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A sadly familiar plan for Syria

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By Trudy Rubin
Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

Heaven help John Kerry! The newly minted secretary of State says he'll launch a fresh initiative aimed at ending the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Last spring, then-Sen. Kerry appeared to grasp what was needed to break the deadly stalemate. But his current approach, and the White House's deep antipathy toward any serious U.S. involvement in Syria, mean Kerry is embarking on a mission impossible. Unless, that is, the secretary can persuade the president to change his mind.

Despite early White House expectations that Assad would fall, the Syrian struggle now is mired in a bloody stalemate in which more than 70,000 people have died and a country is being pulverized. Barring a new approach, neither side is likely to triumph in the foreseeable future.

“The more probable outcome,” according to the astute Syrian opposition activist Amr al-Azm, “is the collapse and fragmentation of the state” and possibly a sectarian genocide. The blowback could affect Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Israel.

A failed Syrian state would provide a power vacuum into which outside jihadis could flow, permitting them to radicalize local Islamists and obtain dangerous weapons from captured regime arsenals. And once a state collapses — as we know from the Iraq experience — it is very difficult to rebuild.

Kerry understands this danger and warns of an “implosion” of the Syrian state. He also understands why Assad won't budge. “He thinks he's winning and the opposition is losing,” Kerry said at his confirmation hearing. “We need to change Bashar al-Assad's calculation,” he added.

Indeed, backed and armed by Russia and Iran, and aware that Washington won't give crucial antitank or antiaircraft weapons to the rebels, Assad seems confident that his regime can survive the fighting. So does Moscow.

While the rebels have managed to take control of some rural areas, no city has fallen yet. “In Bashar's calculus, he just needs to weather the storm,” Azm told me. “And he's not necessarily wrong.”

Kerry, however, believes he can change Assad's “current perception,” facilitating talks between Assad and the rebels that could offer the president a comfy exile and provide protection for his Alawite (Shiite) sect. The secretary also hopes to find more “common ground” on Syria with Moscow, despite failed administration efforts in the past.

There are no signs that Moscow is receptive. It took days for Kerry to get a return call from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. And the Assad regime brushed aside opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib's offer to engage in talks. Clearly, Assad does not feel a need to compromise yet.

Since his re-election, President Obama has made very clear his reluctance to consider any deeper involvement with Syria beyond increased humanitarian aid.

Last spring, Kerry talked of arming the rebels. Now, instead of charting a new strategy, he seems limited to repeating past (failed) efforts, urging Moscow to help him ease Assad into exile. Meanwhile, the regime's planes bomb cities and towns into rubble and the Syrian state rapidly collapses. The longer this goes on, the worse the outcome will be.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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