Can John Kerry Keep Three Sets of Talks Alive?

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Juggling Iran nukes, Syrian poison gas and the Palestinian-Israeli dispute may prove too much REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster/Pool

Secretary of State John Kerry celebrated his 70th birthday last week in Jerusalem, where he was forced to endure not only a snowstorm in a country unequipped to deal with it, but growing skepticism about his ability to complete an ambitious diplomatic plan to end a century-old Palestinian-Israeli dispute by next spring.

Similar skepticism meets Kerry whenever he tries to resolve the Syrian crisis by organizing a peaceful powwow among warriors who would rather see each other dead, and when he tries to convince Congress to withhold further Iran sanctions while he negotiates an end to Tehran’s nuclear arms program.

Kerry may hope against hope that a single success in any part of this three-pronged diplomatic high-wire act will become contagious, but the reverse may also be true: A collapse of the Iran nuclear negotiations, the Syria talks, or his attempts at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking could kill all his other diplomatic efforts.

“Success in any of these tracks can be helpful,” for the others, says Cliff May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, but “a failure in [any] one can be detrimental.”

Unease in Washington over the administration’s Middle East diplomacy, and specifically over the lack of forceful action to back it up, has spread beyond frequent critics like May to Democratic foreign-policy hawks. The chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, as well as the third most powerful Democrat in the Senate, Charles Schumer of New York, have publicly criticized last month’s interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. On Wednesday, Menendez and Schumer, along with Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, circulated new legislation threatening Iran with new sanctions, a measure that Kerry had urged Congress to avoid.  

As Kerry battles Congress about Iran, he is also trying, along with the United Nations, to organize a peace conference between representatives of President Assad and the rebels who are fighting to unseat him.

American diplomats are expected to decide Friday, along with their Russian counterparts and the U.N., which parties to invite to the Syria conference, known as Geneva II. But Syria’s rebel groups have yet to commit to the parlay, scheduled for January 22 in Montreux, Switzerland. (Geneva itself could not host the conference named after it, as it was booked long ago for a convention of watchmakers.)

Meanwhile both Kerry and President Obama have tried to impress on a skeptical Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that, regardless of the region’s shifting landscape and instability, now is the time for striking a comprehensive deal with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. While the prime minister publicly says he’s ready to make sacrifices to attain peace, he also urges the Americans to first look elsewhere.

“Our best efforts to reach Palestinian-Israeli peace will come to nothing if Iran succeeds in building atomic bombs,” Netanyahu told a Washington crowd two weeks ago, just as Kerry was about to go on his latest Ramallah and Jerusalem visit. “A nuclear-armed Iran would give even greater backing to the radical and terrorist elements in the region,” Netanyahu said in a videotaped message to the annual gathering of the Saban Forum.

Netanyahu is angry that, for months, America has been secretly negotiating with the Iranians in Oman without notifying the Israelis about what they are up to. In this, and in concerns that an American failure to halt Iran’s nuclear progress could overshadow any possible diplomatic breakthrough elsewhere in the region, the Israeli prime minister is not alone.

This week a former Saudi intelligence chief and Washington ambassador, Prince Turki al Faisal, and the kingdom’s London ambassador, Mohammed Bin Nawaf Bin Abdulaziz al Saud, uncharacteristically used American newspapers to criticize the Obama administration’s policies in the Middle East.

The strong rebukes from both Jerusalem and Riyadh may actually lead to some unintended positive consequences, says Abraham Sofaer of Stanford University. As both Israel and Saudi Arabia are wary of Iran’s rise, he says, they could launch “across the board talks between Israelis and Sunni powers.” A top State Department legal advisor under President Reagan, Sofaer says that such cooperation could lead to faster progress on talks towards settling the festering Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

In his latest book, Taking On Iran, Sofaer, who conducted secret talks with Tehran in the 1980s, proposes a very different tack than Kerry’s strategy. To bolster any hope of success in negotiations, he says, the U.S. must simultaneously do battle with the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The IRGC harms American interests in the region and beyond, Sofaer notes, and has been responsible for attacks on American and allied targets from Beirut to Argentina. Along with the Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, the IRGC is the most significant force ensuring that Bashar Assad keeps hold of power in Syria.

Rather than forever analyzing the action plan that was reached last month between Iran and the six leading world powers, Sofaer says, American policymakers should try to bolster the Tehran moderates by launching a series of assaults, including military strikes, against their enemies – the IRGC and its domestic wing, the Basiji militias. “The devil is not in the details of the joint plan,” he says. “The devil is in the IRGC, and we have to deal with the devil.”

Both Israelis and Saudis are afraid that Kerry and Obama have no such battle plan and that, because of their ameliorative stance, their long-standing American ally is now perceived across the region as a weakened force.

The U.S. “gave us the impression that they were going to do things in Syria that they finally didn’t,” the Saudi royal family member Prince Turki told The Wall Street Journal this week. Washington’s Middle East policy borders on “criminal negligence,” he added, with the result that the Saudis must become more involved and demand a seat at the various negotiation tables.

Last week Washington and London publicly announced the suspension of even “nonlethal” aid to Syria’s rebels after the Islamic Front alliance, an umbrella of militant Jihadi rebel groups, ransacked a border crossing controlled by the moderate Free Syrian Army, which until now was the main conduit of Western support. The raid forced the top leader of the anti-Assad secular force, General Salim Idris, to flee the country.

Several Western diplomats have acknowledged that the American and British aid to the moderates was never a real game-changer in Syria. The opposition to Assad is increasingly composed of a patchwork of Sunni Islamists, many of them veterans of the Jihad wars in Afghanistan, Libya, and even Europe, which are financed and armed by Saudi, Qatari, and other wealthy Sunni backers.

Perhaps because they are resigned to the new realities on the ground in Syria, State Department officials are now hinting they might invite Islamic Front representatives to the Geneva II conference.

Assad would never have survived the fierce civil war had it not been for the military support he is receiving from Tehran’s IRGC and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. He also enjoyed strong diplomatic backing from Russia.

On Monday, Moscow’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, essentially accused his American counterpart, Samantha Power, of lying to the Security Council by detailing America’s evidence that Assad’s army used chemical weapons against rebels and civilians.

Power’s evidence was a “provocation,” said Churkin. “World War II began with a provocation. A provocation triggered the American war on Vietnam. And NATO’s bombarded in Serbia started with a provocation. Sophisticated filtration of information and manipulation of public opinion preceded the invasion in Iraq. Luckily, this time we’ll manage to avoid an international escalation of the Syria conflict.”

Except, after at least 120,000 deaths and with millions of Syrian refugees and homeless facing one of the worst winters in the region for over a century, the Syrian civil war has already escalated into a regional, even international war, said a Western diplomat. “The only reason Churkin is happy is that Syria and Iran are currently winning,” said the diplomat, who asked for anonymity so he could speak freely.

He expressed deep doubts over whether any good would come from the Geneva II conference. Syria’s future, he said, will be “decided in the battlefield,” adding, “I can only hope that once it’s over, the winner won’t conclude that victory in Syria means that all wars in the region are winnable. That’s a recipe for disaster.”

Follow Benny Avni on Twitter: @bennyavni

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