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Events in Syria this week, particularly reports of chemical weapons being readied, overshadowed news of renewed US-Russian talks to resolve the conflict.   The two powers agreed at a surprise meeting in Belfast, Northern Ireland on Dec. 7 to revive UN-brokered diplomatic efforts to settle the 21-month old Syrian civil war.

Reported movement toward a revival of negotiations also provides important context to the other related story this week, President Obama’s decision to withdraw Susan Rice’s candidacy from the running to replace outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

As Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice was widely seen as having played an overly-antagonistic role toward Russia and China in her failed efforts to push through the Security Council an authorization for intervention in Syria.  The two countries blocked her draft resolution similar to that adopted prior to NATO airstrikes in Libya.  Rice is also criticized by some for a highly confrontational approach toward Iran, as well as votes and rhetoric seen as overly indulgent of Israeli actions condemned by most other UN members.

Rice has been at the center of intense conflict over these issues.  In August, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon noted at the time of the resignation of Kofi Annan as mediator of Syria talks that the Security Council’s own divisions over Syria “have themselves become an obstacle to diplomacy, making the work of any mediator vastly more difficult.”


The situation has changed in several important ways since the parties to the UN brokered Syrian peace talks in Geneva broke down on June 30.  A follow-on summit was scheduled to hammer out terms of a settlement in January, 2013.  Instead, violence in Syria escalated with the entry of additional foreign fighters and arms, to which the regime responded by massive bombardments leveling rebel held positions in Syrian cities, and the viability of US-Russian talks was cast into doubt. c.f.,  

A string of recent events have implications for the outcome of the war in Syria, and they starkly underline the stakes and cast a renewed emphasis on the need for diplomatic outcome as the only alternative to the dangers of further escalation and potential use of chemical weapons, the consequences of a collapse of the Syrian state and military, and a regional spread of conflict.

Writing in Wired, Spencer Ackerman captures the increasingly graphic particulars of reports about Syrian chemical weapons. While some of the details have turned out to be exaggerations, he's been tapped for alarming threat warnings being leaked from sources inside the Pentagon and intelligence agencies:

(We) reported last week that U.S. officials recently saw indications that at least some Syrian military forces mixed precursor chemicals for sarin gas, which got the weaponized stocks to the point where they could be loaded onto planes and dropped. The Washington Post’s Joby Warrick adds detail to that account. Some elite troops received “specific orders” to prep the weapons. At least one Syrian army unit was caught on surveillance photos loading “special military vehicles” that could be used to transport the weapons.

Those preparations came to a halt last week: There is apparently no evidence that “activated chemical weapons” were loaded onto military planes or sent near rebel positions. Syria has apparently begun firing ballistic Scud missiles at rebel-held areas, but while the Scuds are capable of carrying a chemical payload, they’ve not done so yet. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters this week that the U.S. hasn’t seen new indications of a potential chemical attack.


These worrying developments raise a series of questions:

First, how will Susan Rice’s withdrawal Thursday as Secretary of State apparent play out in those talks, and what does it say about a possible shift in the US bargaining position?  Second, how does replacement of Rice as Secretary of State designate change the atmosphere and potential outcomes?   Much will be revealed by President Obama’s choice of a candidate to replace her.  The task of finding a suitable successor to Hillary Clinton is, itself, proving a daunting and politically divisive task.


On December 7,  Associated Press reported a  surprise 40-minute meeting between Secretary of State Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and UN emissary Brahimi.  That meeting was held against the grim backdrop of a Syria crisis escalating to end-game with the regime reportedly starting to mobilize its chemical weapons forces.  After the Belfast summit, the report states:

Clinton said nothing that suggested either government had changed its position, and Lavrov made no public comments after the meeting. But with rebels fighting government forces on the outskirts of Syria's capital and Western governments warning about possible chemical weapons deployment by the Assad regime, Clinton emphasized the importance of taking another shot at a peaceful transition deal.

Diplomatic efforts are needed to gauge "what is possible in face of the advancing developments on the ground which are increasingly dangerous not only to Syrians, but to their neighbors," Clinton said, in an apparent reference to Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, which has become the focus of Western nervousness about the civil war.

Brahimi said after the talks that he would put together a peace process based on a political transition strategy the U.S. and Russia agreed on in Geneva in June. At that time, the process quickly became bogged down over how the international community might enforce its conditions.

There is a growing sense that diplomatic efforts to this point have failed to control the developing Mideast conflict centered in Syria, and that the civil war now threatens to spill-over into a regional war, potentially triggering an exchange of WMD.  The Belfast meeting paves the way for another UN-brokered summit, originally scheduled for January in Geneva.  If the United States and the Russian Federation reconvene formal talks in Geneva, that will shape the terms of a settlement they intend to impose on Syria, ending the civil war, an outcome if realized that would reorder the contours of power across the Mideast, North Africa and the Persian Gulf.   That is exactly what some third-parties find most alarming.

The makeup of the U.S. diplomatic team heading these talks is, of course, of crucial importance to its success or failure, and the outlook for war or peace across the Sunni-Shi’ia divide.  It was widely held that Susan Rice was not the best choice to lead those talks, if deescalation and a diplomatic outcome is sought.

There are, of course, other parties formally party in these talks that started in Geneva on June 30, but noticeably absent were the two principal regional rivals with the most intense interest in shifting the outcome, Iran and Saudi Arabia, who while they pointedly don’t have seats at the table, have proxies and interests that cannot be ignored.   Some of these proxies have already been heard from in the blasts that are pulverizing much of Syria’s cities into widely-scattered debris as many factions jockey to maximize their positions on the ground prior to the talks.

What Exit of Susan Rice as the Presumed SOS Means for a Potential US-Russia Settlement of the Syria Crisis and for a Peaceful Regional Settlement with Iran?

First, let’s back up to six months to the June 30 UN brokered conference in Geneva presided over by Kofi Anan.  That summit resulted in no publicly-stated agreement on the specifics of a settlement, other than a very general 6-point plan that calls for a unity government, leaving the specifics of terms to be discussed in January under the conditions that apply inside Syria at that time.

That was, in some ways, the worst-case outcome for Syria, as it guaranteed that the regime and the opposition, along with outside armed groups would do the most they could militarily in the intervening time to literally pave the terrain on the ground for an outcome that was most advantageous to themselves.   It was clear at the time of the breakdown of talks, and the departure of UN mediator Kofi Annan, that divisions within the Security Council made it impossible to impose either the U.S.-drafted resolution or the similar Arab League Plan championed by the Saudis.  The NYT reported in early August at the time Annan announced his resignation:

[Annan] said, “without serious, purposeful and united international pressure, including from the powers of the region, it is impossible for me, or anyone, to compel the Syrian government in the first place, and also the opposition, to take the steps necessary to begin a political process.”

Mr. Annan also was critical of what he called “finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council.”

Word of Mr. Annan’s resignation came as the United Nations General Assembly was preparing to vote on a non-binding resolution drafted by Saudi Arabia that demanded compliance by the Syrian government with the draft plan.

In a statement that followed Annan’s departure, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon noted that the Security Council’s own divisions “have themselves become an obstacle to diplomacy, making the work of any mediator vastly more difficult.”

Annan and Moon were referring to a series of repeated public clashes between Rice and Russian and Chinese UN delegates over failed efforts led by Rice to push the Security Council to authorize a resolution similar to that drafted by her for military intervention in Libya.  These measures failed three times to pass.   Dr. Rice used language unusual for a diplomat to say that Russia and China had carried out “a cheap ruse” and, addressing a press conference after the initial vote the previous October, she said that the Syrian people “have been slapped in the face by several members of this Security Council today.”  She went on to remark:
And as I said in the chamber, I think the people of Syria and the people of the region have had today the opportunity to determine who among us stand with the people of the region in their quest for a better future, and who will go to whatever lengths are necessary to defend dictators who are on the warpath. . .

I think Libya has been beat to death, overused, and misused by countries as an excuse by countries to not undertake their responsibilities with regard to Syria.

As a decidedly bellicose UN Ambassador, Dr. Rice has also been the point of the spear in the escalating US confrontation with Iran. Her rhetoric toward that country has been often hostile, played out on the UN stage underlined by gathering regime change operations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), amidst multiple sanctions and destabilization of the Iranian economy under the U.S.-led sanctions regime.

In an article in the Voice of America News, it is pointed out that Rice’s aggressive demeanor was perceived as counter-productive, even by some who supported tougher policies in Iran and Syria.  “Professor David Bosco, a U.N. expert at American University, says that while Rice is an effective ambassador, the United States failed to achieve key objectives under her tenure.”

"The United States would have preferred even tougher action against Iran, and it wasn’t able to get that," he said, adding that Washington was also seeking more intense pressure on the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. “[The U.S.] was unable to get Moscow or Beijing to agree to that, leading to the vetoes of that resolution."
Better Results with a Softer Stick?

Clearly, it is essential to the Obama Administration that if it seeks to continue its policy of degrading the emerging power of Iran while soothing nerves in Riyadh, Ankara, and Jerusalem – without further escalation of war in the region -- that it must succeed at getting Moscow and Beijing on board with any settlement in Syria.  After the last four years of banging heads and calling names, Susan Rice was probably not seen as the ideal person to do that.

There’s been a lot of speculation that Senator John Kerry may be the President’s alternate choice, but it is also unclear as to whether Kerry indeed wants the job as it would require his departure from his seat as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and potentially make that seat in the Senate vulnerable to another run by Republican Scott Brown in a special election.

If not Kerry, Obama needs to find someone who -- first and foremost -- he trusts; another essential position requirement is that the nominee is someone who can win substantially more than 51 votes in the Senate.  Preferably, that person also comes with a towering reputation for effective diplomacy, intelligence, and integrity who can also deal effectively with the major global parties to this conflict, as well as the ability and interest in administration of the foreign policy bureaucracy (s)he must lead.   There aren’t many.  

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Comment Preferences

  •  Susan Rice was NEVER SoS designate. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Boris49, sebastianguy99

    She was merely a rumoured leading candidate for nomination.  Until a person is nominated, there is no Secretary designate.

    Furthermore, Rice will continue in her current role as US Permanent Representative the UN (with its attendant membership in the Cabinet), as all reports that I have seen indicate.  So, quite frankly, I really don't understand where you are going with this diary.

  •  Someone doesn't understand the difference btw SOS (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ...and UN Amb. The two positions have different responsibilities.

    The notion that Susan Rice is the reason the Assad regime still stands demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the circumstances.

    "There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.".. Buddha

    by sebastianguy99 on Sat Dec 15, 2012 at 04:48:16 PM PST

    •  You have fundamentally misunderstood this diary (0+ / 0-)

      And it's one of the most simple and straightforward I've ever written.

      Again, willfully obtuse.

      •  not aggrieved enough, not enough poutrage (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Diaries on Kos that get much pump-up usually hew very closely to established memes.

        You have dared to look at this from a different angle (I personally don't give a shit either way - since these high-level positions are all friends-nominating-friends, and keeping the power and influence among the "cognoscenti" - outsiders not allowed).

        New angles aren't appreciated on Kos. Best to stick to the tried (notice how "tried and "tired" are spelled using identical letters?) themes/viewpoints.

        It's a bubble. More informed IMO than the RedState drivel etc., but a bubble nonetheless. People come to Kos mostly to hear confirmation of their own ideas. If you want a highly popular diary, pick a topic and a slant that is already liked - people will come in droves to rec the diary.

        You could also read one of those pompous self-serving "here's how to write a great diary", wherein a series of monkey-tricks are listed along with accepted/expected behaviors like "insightful" comments in response to the comments of others. It's mostly a self-puffery game - I just read diaries (haven't written on in years) making sure to avoid those known to engage in long paeans to self (usually introduced by the diarist's "accomplishments" (MBA, professional standing etc. etc.), and all kinds of claims about personal experience / knowledge that are not verifiable without real diarist names.

        The best reading on Kos is on the main sheet - quality of diaries varies and it's pot-luck.

    •  "fundamental misunderstanding" (0+ / 0-)

      since you're so well informed, please provide substantiation for your summary dismissal. If you "understand" let's hear something substantive.

      It's easy to pronounce, as you do, with great self-puffery, but your bald statement could do with some backup, unless you're just parroting the ideas of others

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