When US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in the Middle East next week, he will be faced with a new set of challenges to which the old US foreign policy playbook is becoming less relevant. The Syrian crisis and Egypt’s transition top Kerry’s agenda and will test his ability to bypass regional differences in seeking to promote US goals.
Kerry is veering off his predecessor Hillary Clinton’s course whose first trip and a large part of her legacy were involved in charting new territory and American influence in Asia, in what became known as the “Asia pivot”. This pivot might be coming to an end with Kerry, who since assuming office has directed attention to the Middle East. His early phone calls were to regional leaders, and his first trip will take him to Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar after visiting the traditional European allies.
The trip has Syria’s footprints all over Kerry’s itinerary. Kerry is said to be drafting a new diplomatic proposal toward a negotiated settlement to end the bloodshed and result in the departure of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Kerry will discuss the plan with the Turkish, Qatari, and Saudi leaderships, all of whom are influential players with the opposition. Kerry is also meeting next Tuesday his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, whose country has strong ties with the Assad regime. The trip will take Kerry to Rome, where he will meet for the first time with the head of the Syrian National Coalition Moaz Khatib, on the margins of a European meeting to support the opposition.
In his 30-minute call with Lavrov last Sunday, Kerry showed more urgency for “ending the bloodshed” and preventing further “deterioration of the institutions of the (Syrian) state”.
Kerry has also emphasized the need to change Assad’s calculation for any plan to succeed. The ground war is escalating around Damascus and Aleppo, and the economic situation growing more dire. Thursday’s car bombing in central Damascus was in the vicinity of Russia’s embassy in the capital, and comes after Moscow sent two aircraft to evacuate its citizens from Syria. It is unclear what steps Washington will take if Kerry’s diplomatic proposal does not materialize, but the administration has hinted at reevaluating the possibility of arming the opposition.
The Egypt stop is also critical for Kerry’s Middle East tour. The transition has been more turbulent than many had expected, and relations between US president Barack Obama and Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi have taken a step backwards after growing street protests, and the inability of Morsi to hold a constructive dialogue with the opposition. Morsi’s initial plans to visit the US on December 17th were canceled, and Obama will not be stopping in Cairo during his trip to the region next month. Kerry will be meeting civil society leaders, and will urge “greater political consensus and moving forward on economic reforms”. In eyeing a negotiated settlement in Syria, or putting more pressure on Morsi, Kerry will have to seek cooperation from the regional players. US influence has declined in the Middle East since the Iraq war, and at times has been replaced with Iran or Turkey or Qatar who have closer relations with some of the critical players including the Assad regime (Iran), and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, and Egypt.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul has rejected a “non-regional” solution to the Syrian crisis. In his speech to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Cairo two weeks ago, Gul declared that the conflict “can only be resolved by the countries of the region.” Qatar on the other hand has been seen as a major arms supplier for the Syrian opposition, and a close ally of Morsi and his government.
Kerry will have to circumvent those differences, and try to bring Turkey and Qatar on board for his plan to have a chance at succeeding. The US role is still indispensable when it comes to regional stability, security and military aid.
The US Secretary of State has the skill-set of a dealmaker, and has brokered agreements in Afghanistan and Sudan and has helped ratify the START treaty with Russia. Managing what Kerry called the “biggest upheaval” in the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire will require a serious US diplomatic push in the region, and readiness to negotiate a political minefield on his trip.
— Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper. Follow her on Twitter: @Joyce_Karam