Sunday, September 22, 2013

US Officials on Syria: 'We'll talk robust deadlines but in reality, the process has plenty of flexibility!'

'Commentators in Washington are marveling how, after a week of indecision and abrupt changes of mind, President Obama may now enjoy an opportunity to make diplomatic progress on two of the thorniest problems facing US foreign policy: Syria and Iran. As one White House staffer put it to us: "we have gone from facing certain defeat in Congress and a total loss of credibility to a chance to demonstrate that the President is worthy of his Nobel peace prize." There are, of course, ten profound skeptics for every one person who believes this thesis, but for the moment Obama appears to be the beneficiary of a "get out of jail" card. As Secretary of State Kerry acknowledges, the next steps over Syria will be fraught with tension and turning expectation into reality faces multiple pitfalls. The Administration is committed to short deadlines and tough language to enforce the Syrian regime's commitments on chemical weapons elimination. However, from our private conversations with relevant officials, our assessment is that there is plenty of flexibility built into the process. So long as Syrian compliance is judged to be moving in the right direction, the White House will not be minded to interpose deal-breaking demands. Similarly, with regard to Iran, the change in atmospherics is palpable. Whether or not Obama meets with President Rouhani at the UN General Assembly next week, US officials now see the chance to reinvigorate the "extended arm" diplomacy from the early days of Obama's first term. As one NSC official commented to us: "We have gone from instinctively distrusting anything and everything Tehran said to being at least open to listening." US officials now speak openly of "mutual respect." The well-known opponents of any accommodation with Iran are already mobilizing to undermine this approach. US diplomats and military planners are ever mindful of Israeli objections but, as one intelligence officer commented to us, "for the time being we have Netanyahu is the box where we want him." .."

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