Suppose a great power declares that it supports a peace process aimed at finding a political solution to a terrible, ongoing conflict. Then suppose that this great power makes such declarations after it has already proclaimed its strong interest in the defeat of one of the main parties to said conflict. And then suppose that this great power insists on preconditions for a peace process—preconditions effectively boiling down to a demand for pre-emptive surrender by the party whose defeat the great power has already identified as its major goal—which render such a process impossible. Is it not reasonable to conclude that the great power in question is (how to put this gently) lying about its purported support for peace?
That, in a nutshell, is the Obama administration’s posture toward the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Earlier this week, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon began sending out invitations for the Geneva II conference on Syria scheduled for January 22. And, as Ban’s spokesperson acknowledged, the Islamic Republic of Iran was not among the “first round” of nations asked to take part.
According to the spokesperson, invitations to the talks are subject to the approval—or veto—of the two “initiating states,” Russia and the United States. The Islamic Republic has said repeatedly that it is prepared to attend and to contribute constructively to the search for a political settlement. Of course, Russia supportsIran’s participation in Geneva II—as does China, Germany, Turkey, every other state seriously interested in resolving the conflict in Syria, and the United Nations itself. (Ban’s spokesperson publicly stated this week, “The secretary-general is in favor of inviting Iran.”)
It is the United States—whose leader, President Obama has demanded for more than two years that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad relinquish his position—that is blocking Iranian participation in Geneva II. And it is attempting to justify this position by continuing to insist on Assad’s pre-emptive surrender as part of the Geneva II agenda. Moreover, Washington is couching its demand for Assad’s pre-emptive surrender in a shamelessly dishonest reading of the 2012 Geneva I communique, which is supposed to set the terms of reference for Geneva II.
On this last point, Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week (before Ban started sending out invitations) reiterated the Obama administration’s opposition to Iran’s participation in Geneva II as a “ministerial partner.” In the administration’s view, Iran can’t come to the meeting because it has not signed on to the Geneva I document—in particular, the passage positing that a “transitional governing body” for Syria “shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent” among “the present government and the opposition and other groups.”
Since Iran (at Washington’s insistence) was not invited to Geneva I, it is not clear exactly how or why Tehran should sign up to a communique it had no part in producing. But the most shamelessly dishonest aspect of the Obama administration’s posturing on the matter is its insistence that Iran accept the administration’s warped reading of the passage from Geneva I just cited, which Team Obama (including Kerry) interprets as a requirement that Assad leave office and play no future political role—whether as part of a transitional government or as Syria’s first president elected after a settlement is negotiated.
We suspect that Assad would, in all likelihood, win another national mandate—even in the “free and fair multi-party elections” envisioned in Geneva I. But Washington doesn’t want Syrians to have the chance to make that choice. And so Washington continues to block Iranian participation in Geneva II—save perhaps, as Kerry pompously suggested earlier this week, “from the sidelines” (a proposition that Iran has roundly rejected).
What is so appallingly arrogant about the Obama administration’s position is that it was explicitly rejected at Geneva I. Then-UN envoy Kofi Annan’s draft communique originally contained U.S.-backed language barring figures from the conflict resolution process whose participation would block creation of a national unity government—language that the United States, Britain, and France crafted to exclude Assad. Russia and China insisted that this language be removed from the final communique. But the Obama administration has disingenuously continued asserting that the language in Geneva I bans Assad from any future political role—even though it is as clear as day that Geneva I, as actually adopted, does not do any such thing.
Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are supposed to discuss the question of Iranian participation in Geneva II on January 13. Let’s see if the Obama administration can actually decide that it wants to resolve the conflict in Syria, rather than prolonging it further.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett