The Middle East has been the one region outside of Western Europe that American foreign policy and secretaries of state have been involved with since the Eisenhower administration. Sure, other regions have occupied the attention of Washington for an administration or even a decade or two: South East Asia from 1954 to 1975; Latin America and the Caribbean in the Kennedy administration, early Johnson administration and then again Central America during the Carter and Reagan administrations; Southern Africa from 1976 to 1989; and the Balkans in the 1990s. Now the Korean peninsula is a region of concern. But continuously throughout this period the Middle East has been of importance: as an arena for containment of the Soviet Union through regional alliances in the Eisenhower administration; mediating the Arab-Israeli conflict to reconcile contradictory national interests in the region from the Nixon administration through end of the second Bush administration; spreading democracy in the Bush administration and Obama administration.
The situation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is such that peace is not available in the near term. The Palestinians are divided between Hamas and Fatah, and so Fatah functions under the restraining influence of Hamas and cannot drastically modify its positions until Hamas is neutralized. This can be done either through defeat or merger. But merger or a national unity government is likely to be at the expense of any moderate tendencies in Fatah. In Israel the Center-Left is too weak to form a government without input from parties that are ideologically opposed to the two-state solution. Thus, we are left with the two parties to the conflict being dominated by political parties that are ideologically opposed to the two-state solution--or at least on terms that the other side can accept. This leaves Secretary of State John Kerry with solving the civil war in Syria as his main chance to make a mark in the region.
The three-year old civil war in Syria is now threatening to tear the region apart by spreading to its neighbors in Lebanon and Iraq. The sectarian warfare in Syria has reignited sectarian warfare in Iraq. And Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian civil war has begun to export the war to Lebanon. If Lebanon catches on fire, Iraq will surely follow. This gives Kerry an incentive to become involved in attempts to mediate the war through co-sponsoring a peace conference with Russia.
But is Russia interested in peace at a price that it can deliver? Russia is interested because the Assad regime is a client of Russia inherited from the Soviet period. Since the mid-1970s Moscow has seen Washington steal away or eliminate its regional clients one by one: Egypt in 1974-75, Yemen in the early 1990s, Iraq in 2003, and finally Libya in 2002 and in 2011. Syria is the last chance to end this trend and recover. Assad feels that his back is against the wall and he cannot compromise. Moscow seems to lack the leverage to compromise at Assad's expense--by sacrificing him in a deal with the Sunni opposition. So for now Moscow is backing Assad. Not only does it make sense in terms of geopolitics (the port of Tartus) and bill collecting, but it also fits well into Putin's domestic political strategy by manipulating Cold War era images of the United States. And there is evidence from the region that Kerry's eagerness to co-sponsor the peace conference is being interpreted as backing Assad's rule in Syria.
Northern Ireland presents a model for mediation that is useful for mediating regional conflicts. It consists of sponsors to the two main sides in the conflict co-sponsoring a peace process and together choosing an acceptable mediator. This worked in Northern Ireland because Dublin and London had good economic and political relations with each other. They are close trading partners and the two leaders at the start of the peace process, Albert Reynolds and John Major, were on good personal terms. This then carried over when they were replaced by new leaders such as Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair. The process worked because there was bi-partisan support of the process in both countries. Moscow and Washington lack these close relations and Moscow has reason to be suspicious of how Washington has used superpower sponsorship of Middle East peace conferences in the past (1973). And in Washington the two parties are both deeply divided about the Syrian civil war.
If Kerry expects to make a major achievement during his one term as secretary of state he should plan on doing it in another region. Perhaps in East Asia with a deal on the Korean peninsula or between China and Japan or Japan and South Korea?