Argument

Kerry's Syrian Quagmire

As the secretary of state tries to get the rebels and the regime to the negotiating table, a State Department official says it would take "sarin gas being lobbed at Tel Aviv" for Washington to take military action.

Even as Secretary of State John Kerry pushes for all parties in the Syrian civil war to gather around a table in Geneva, he was forced to implore his supposed partners in peace to refrain from taking steps that could worsen the bloodshed. On May 31he called on his Russian co-hosts in the talks to hold back from delivering advanced missile systems to the Syrian government. Delivery of the S-300 surface-to-air missile defense system, said Kerry, was "not helpful."

Yet the move from the Russians is only the latest signal that peace talks between the Syrian opposition and President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which the United States hopes to hold in July, face slim odds at best. Many in Washington are already wagering that political and military realities will overtake the diplomatic overture Kerry announced early this month. The secretary of state's plans received another blow on May 30, when the Syrian opposition said it would boycott talks so long as Hezbollah forces were fighting alongside the Syrian military and "massacres" were occurring.

"The opposition is in no place tactically or politically to enter into Geneva right now, so they should not be pushed," said one State Department official, who referred to the timing of the talks as a "mystery." "It is a long shot to get them there -- and if we get them there I think it will further divide the opposition." 

The one thing the opposition agrees upon is their need for a guarantee that if Assad does not step down before talks -- an eventuality no one expects -- he will step aside as a consequence of them. And if the Syrian president remains determined to fight to the end, opposition leaders expect the international community to provide them with weapons to defeat him on the battlefield. As of now, however, President Barack Obama's administration does not look at all prepared to take that step.

"From the administration perspective... the only thing that will work in this situation is the 'negotiated settlement,' and so that is where this White House wants to keep it," said a second State Department official. "There appears to be no interest in doing any next steps, and so this is sort of a fallback because the next step is not something that they are willing to envision." 

No Plan B has emerged in discussions with Washington diplomats about what to do should the peace talks fail to end the savage two-year conflict. The other options before the White House, according to this official, "are all problematic, they are all not easy and from where I sit there really is not interest in being involved. Period."

Ideas that have been floated by opposition supporters include the creation and enforcement of a no-fly zone and a push to arm the rebels. In the meantime, State Department officials working on the event say they are putting all they have into Geneva. 

"The idea is we exhaust every possibility," said a third State Department official who was not authorized to speak on the record. "We are facing this enormous confluence of bad things happening but a limited arsenal."

This official said the best-case scenario was that the opposition showed up to the Geneva talks, Assad agreed to step down, and the two sides managed to outline the solution for a political transition. The worst-case scenario, however, was that "we lose the patient [Syria] on the ground and they bleed out. Everything we do in the Middle East is tied up in Syria right now." 

Veteran diplomats watching from the sidelines say that even if Geneva fails, Kerry is doing what any good secretary of state should.

"It is a long, uncertain shot, but it is better than doing nothing," said former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who served as America's top diplomat in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Diplomatic sources confirmed Crocker was among those recently asked to serve as America's envoy to the Syrian opposition, but was unable to accept the position given professional commitments made while still ambassador to Afghanistan. "If it fails it will at least tell us what won't work and perhaps open up the door to what might, although this is a pretty desperate situation." 

Other diplomats find it hard to imagine how a failed Geneva conference could do anything but make an already nightmarish situation ever worse.

"It is a policy of containment, non-intervention at all costs," said the first State Department official. "Short of sarin gas being lobbed at Tel Aviv, we are not going to intervene."

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Arms Twisting

Why won't Obama sign his own weapons treaty next week?

Amid a rash of negative press and continued controversies, the Obama administration has an opportunity next week to celebrate an important foreign policy victory. On June 3, representatives of governments from around the world will come together to sign the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a landmark agreement that will save lives by regulating the international trade in conventional weapons.

The ATT manages the global arms trade in three ways: It establishes common international standards for the arms trade that countries must incorporate into their national systems for controlling the buying and selling of weapons; it enhances transparency of the traditionally murky world of arms sales by requiring countries to report on their international transfers and steps taken to prevent diversion into the illicit market; and it creates an environment of accountability, whereby countries are responsible for ensuring their arms sales meet global standards and norms.

In a huge diplomatic win, the United States successfully negotiated a treaty text that is consistent with U.S. policies, laws, and practice. The Obama administration demonstrated a fair degree of courage pushing for a treaty that the Bush administration opposed, that many Republicans have rallied against, and that the National Rifle Association has identified as a major threat, arguing, wrongly, that it will infringe on Americans's Second Amendment rights.

That the U.N. General Assembly adopted the treaty on April 2 by a vote of 156-3 -- the "no" votes were Iran, North Korea, and Syria, all of which are sanctioned by U.N. arms embargoes -- demonstrates the strength of U.S. leadership. Yet now, at what should be its moment of victory and an opportunity to cement its role as a leader in combatting the unregulated trade in conventional arms, the United States may not sign the treaty on Monday, the day it opens for signature.

This seems preposterous, given that the Obama administration has argued vociferously and convincingly for this very treaty. The lack of U.S. signature on June 3 would not be due to any substantive opposition by the Obama administration. According to U.S. lead negotiator Thomas Countryman, there "is no change in legislation or policy or procedures that the United States needs to make as a result of this treaty."

So what's the problem?

Countryman has said that the United States "will sign in the very near future," underscoring the "careful review process that involves many agencies of the U.S. government, that involves a restudy of every possible angle, that concludes that here are things that the U.S. may wish to state at the time of signature, or there are shifts that may or may not be necessary that could be considered." Arguing that such a process takes "months, at a minimum," Countryman has also stated that "ratification is a future question that I think we'll address only after we've signed the treaty," but he does not expect the Obama administration to submit the treaty to the Senate for approval any time soon.

Countryman's statement comes with the backdrop of domestic political pressure against the ATT. As they have in the past, American opponents are mischaracterizing the agreement and what it would do. They argue that the Arms Trade Treaty undermines Second Amendment rights and will create a U.N. gun registry. The NRA says the ATT will "threaten the rights and privacy of American gun owners," and Sen. Rand Paul has actually endorsed a fundraising campaign to stop what he calls an effort by U.N. bureaucrats to register, ban, and confiscate firearms owned by private citizens.

In truth, the Arms Trade Treaty only regulates the cross-border trade in conventional arms, ranging from fighter aircraft and warships to small arms and light weapons. The treaty does not impact the rights or responsibilities of American citizens to transfer, own, or use guns in accordance with U.S. national laws. In more than one instance, the treaty explicitly reiterates these protections.

As Secretary of State John Kerry said on April 2: "By its own terms, this treaty applies only to international trade, and reaffirms the sovereign right of any state to regulate arms within its territory. As the United States has required from the outset of these negotiations, nothing in this treaty could ever infringe on the rights of American citizens under our domestic law or the Constitution, including the Second Amendment."

Nor does the ATT undermine U.S. interests or harm U.S. arms manufacturers, as some members of Congress have claimed. Instead, by ensuring that the rest of the world follows the same rules as the United States and that legitimate industry is not competing with black-market brokers, the treaty makes the United States safer and reinforces its competitive advantage in the global marketplace. The defense industry is a global business that, until now, has been subject to a loose patchwork of national controls. The ATT provides a legal baseline, providing predictability and efficiency in international trade.

Still, on April 18, 50 members of the House of Representatives, led by Pennsylvania Republican Mike Kelly, sent a letter to House Appropriations Committee Chair Kay Granger and Ranking Member Nita Lowey requesting that they prohibit funding for the Arms Trade Treaty or its activities, claiming that it undermines Second Amendment rights and potentially harms U.S. arms sales.

These members are ignoring a vital element of the ATT. Unlike the United States, most countries have few, if any, national controls to regulate the transfer of arms. Improving the controls of other countries will prevent the diversion of arms into the illicit market and into the hands of unscrupulous arms dealers and terrorists who target the United States, its interests, and its allies.

The Arms Trade Treaty establishes common international standards for the trade in arms that countries must incorporate into their national control systems. The absence of such standards fuels foreign conflicts, armed violence, and crime by enabling rogue regimes, rebel groups, terrorist organizations, and criminals to arm themselves with impunity.

The United States already has a sophisticated and comprehensive export control system that balances a variety of factors to determine whether an arms transfer should go forward. As the world's largest exporter, responsible for more than 75 percent of the global arms trade, the United States regularly ensures that its arms sales are consistent with U.S. national security concerns and human rights objectives.

Throughout the negotiations, the United States held up its standards as the example to which all countries should aspire. The ATT internationalizes the U.S. process and holds other countries to the same standards that U.S. companies must meet and to which the United States government holds itself accountable.

At its core, the Arms Trade Treaty is about reducing human suffering and providing economic and democratic opportunities to people worldwide. It is about protecting society's most vulnerable, and it is about accountability and justice. The Arms Trade Treaty tells dictators, human rights abusers, and war criminals that they will no longer have access to the tools of terror that allow them to kill, maim, and wreak havoc in their countries with impunity. This idea is not controversial -- it is common sense. The treaty should be an easy sell for the United States.

Unfortunately, it will not be, but that is not a reason for the Obama administration to back off its commitment. Lead U.S. negotiator Countryman has repeatedly stated the U.S. commitment to signing the treaty, so why not sign it when the whole world has gathered to celebrate this accomplishment in New York?

If the United States cannot sign the ATT on June 3, then it must reiterate its strong commitment to the treaty and outline a clear plan for timely U.S signature and Senate approval. It would be a shame to leave the international community with the perception that the United States is not committed to the success of an important agreement it helped negotiate.

DAVID BUIMOVITCH/AFP/Getty Images