When U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. goals.
Kerry is veering off his predecessor’s Hillary Clinton course whose first trip and large part of her legacy was 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 the 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 new diplomatic proposal towards a negotiated settlement to end the bloodshed and result in the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A plan that Kerry will discuss with the Turkish, Qatari, and Saudi leaderships, all are influential players with the opposition. Kerry is also meeting next Tuesday his Russian counterpart Sergie 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 Mouaz Khatib, on the margins of a European meeting to support the opposition.
In his 30 min 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 direr. Yesterday’s car bombing in central Damascus was in the vicinity of Russia’s embassy in the capital, and comes after Moscow sending two aircrafts to evacuate its citizens from Syria. It is unclear what steps Washington would 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 also proves critical for Kerry’s Middle East tour. The transition has been more turbulent than many had expected, and the relation between U.S. president Barack Obama and Egypt’s Mohammed Mursi has taken a step backwards after growing street protests, and the inability of Mursi to lead a constructive dialogue with the opposition. Mursi’s initial plans to visit the U.S. on December 17th have been 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”.
Bypassing Regional Differences
In eyeing a negotiated settlement in Syria, or putting more pressure on Mursi, Kerry will have to seek cooperation from the regional players. The U.S. influence has declined in the Middle East after the Iraq war, and at times been replaced with Iran or Turkey or Qatar who have closer relations with some of the critical actors 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 major arms supplier for the Syrian opposition, and a close ally of Mursi 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 U.S. role is still indispensable when it comes to regional stability, security and military aid.
The U.S. Secretary of State has the skill-set of a dealmaker, and has brokered agreements in Afghanistan, Sudan and 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 U.S. 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, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam