Obama's Next Syria Envoy Must Fight for Relevance

His job will be to win a war his bosses don't want to fight.

If Jerusalem was too easy for Michael Ratney....

Photographer: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

As the Obama administration increases the U.S. commitment to fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, the strategy in Syria is flailing - just as a new special envoy for Syria is set to be appointed. He will struggle to exert enough influence to fix U.S. Syria policy, which is subservient to the White House’s priorities on Iraq and Iran.

President Barack Obama intends to appoint Michael Ratney, the consul general to Jerusalem, to succeed Daniel Rubenstein as the State Department’s go-to official for dealing with the Syrian crisis and interacting with the Syrian opposition, three administration officials told me. The decision is not final until the White House announces it, but that announcement is expected soon. Rubenstein, who served just over one year in a mostly unremarkable stint as Syria envoy, will become ambassador to Tunisia. Rubenstein was Jerusalem consul general before Ratney.

Rubenstein's challenge was not personal, and Ratney's won't be either. He speaks fluent Arabic and has deep experience and an impeccable diplomatic reputation. What will hold him back is the role itself: the office of the special envoy has been downgraded in recent years, and Syria policy itself is tightly controlled by the White House’s National Security Council.

None of the shuffling may matter to the Syrian opposition, which thinks the White House has largely abandoned the drive to replace Assad and drastically scaled back support for armed resistance groups.

“As long as the overall policy from the White House remains lacking on Syria, a shift in the U.S. envoy to the country bears little significance,” said Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a non-government organization that works directly with several different opposition groups.

Inside the State Department, the Syria issue fights for attention against two bigger players, Iraq and Iran. Retired General John Allen, the special coordinator for the coalition to fight the Islamic State, has declared he is pursuing an “Iraq first” strategy and has largely not engaged Sunnis in Syria.

Then there's Iran. All Syria proposals at State must go through the office of the undersecretary for political affairs, Wendy Sherman, who is also the administration’s lead negotiator over a nuclear deal with Iran. The two roles are in tension: the U.S. is under intense pressure to strike a deal with Iran, which could be complicated by U.S. activity inside Syria, Iran’s client state.

Robert Ford, who served as ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014, led the team that Ratney will soon inherit. He told me that whoever takes over the special envoy office must coordinate between many State Department bureaus, other government agencies, and international organizations such as the United Nations, all while dealing with Congress – no easy task.

“The person has to be great at convincing a variety of Syrians as well as foreign officials about working not just militarily but also politically to contain and ultimately resolve the Syrian conflict,” Ford said. “A skillful bureaucratic player who can reach out and pull in help and contributions and blend these contributions into coherent policy tools.”

So far, nothing the U.S. has tried to do in Syria has worked. The Syrian Opposition Council, which President Obama in 2012 called the “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people, has been marginalized and has little if any support on the ground. The secret CIA program to arm Syrian rebel groups has completely cut off support to Free Syrian Army groups in Syria’s north, who have been routed by Islamists. The Pentagon’s train and equip program, to which Congress devoted $500 million, has barely recruited any fighters and faced months of setbacks.

Inside the administration, the White House has placed strict limits on what America will do inside Syria. There have been hundreds of airstrikes against the Islamic State, but without any Syrian forces on the ground to help direct them (other than Kurds), their effectiveness has fallen short. The terror group continues to expand, now controlling more than half the country and threatening the city of Aleppo and the border crossing at Azaz, a potential choke point for international aid.

One State Department official who works on the issue told me that while it’s true that the special envoy for Syria doesn’t control Syria policy making, the individual still must organize the Syrian political opposition in preparation for life after Assad.

That could be years away. For now there is no political process. As long as President Obama is pursuing his Iran détente and the Islamic State threatens Iraq, changing the administration’s hands-off Syria policy will be almost impossible. Still, the Syrian opposition and many inside the government and Congress are hoping Ratney will at least try.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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