Paul Pillar comments on the Syrian opposition’s threat to boycott next month’s peace conference unless it receives heavy weapons from the U.S.:
In a public statement at this week’s “Friends of Syria” meeting, Kerry linked the concept of increased aid to the rebels to any unwillingness by the Assad regime to participate in peace talks. One hopes he has conveyed a converse message in private to rebel representatives. There would be nothing wrong with also making such a message public. It would be part of a consistent policy whereby U.S. decisions about aid to rebels would be governed by the willingness or unwillingness of each side to negotiate and to negotiate seriously.
This is sensible as far as it goes, but we all know that this is very unlikely to happen. Part of the problem is that the U.S. is trying to act as an outside mediator while simultaneously favoring one side in the conflict. There is not much chance that there will be a consistent policy in the way the U.S. treats both sides of the conflict, which is what comes of taking sides in conflicts in which no significant U.S. interests are at stake. Everyone understands that threats from the U.S. to reduce the already limited aid going to the Syrian opposition would be empty ones that would never be carried out, and the opposition will assume that it can safely ignore them. Of course, an unwillingness to negotiate on the opposition’s part is accepted among their supporters in the U.S. as appropriate and even admirable, whereas any interest that the regime might show in negotiations is dismissed out of hand. Obstacles to a negotiated solution include the intransigence of the warring parties, but they also include the hostility to a diplomatic settlement of the conflict among many of their foreign backers.
Contrary to the hopes of Syria hawks, providing the opposition with the weapons they demand will not make them less maximalist in their political goals, but will instead encourage them to be even less inclined to negotiate than they already are.