SyriaSource|Amplifying Syrian voices

February 29, 2016
The opening hours of what would ideally be an open-ended cessation of hostilities in western Syria have reflected generally good results. Residential neighborhoods bombed mercilessly by Russian and Assad regime aircraft—attacks that often focused on medical facilities—are experiencing a modicum of calm for the first time in months and even years. A portion of the estimated one million Syrians under siege by a rogue government inflicting pestilence and starvation is receiving life-saving aid. Can the calm be sustained? Is it a temporary stay of execution? Much depends on how Moscow, Tehran and the Assad regime gauge American resolve to protect Syrian civilians and thereby set the stage for political transition negotiations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin can be accused of many things, some of which would require him to face justice were rule of law prevailing in Moscow or in the international system. Stupidity and lack of forethought are not, however, in the indictment. He knows that important institutions of the American government, led by the Department of Defense, have tumbled to the fact that he represents a palpable threat to the peace. He can see the steps the Obama administration is belatedly taking to reassure European allies militarily. He hears rumors of an American "Plan B" for Syria. Perhaps he thinks a pause is in order. Perhaps he believes it is time to reinforce the standing of those in West who hope that he will, unprompted, do the right thing in Syria. Perhaps he can stimulate a new wave of Western passivity and credulity.

Indeed, one need not dismiss the possibility that Moscow calculates that its military offensive to date has achieved two key objectives: it has stabilized a client and reinforced his ability to rebuff diplomatic demands for his early exit, thereby perhaps permitting a pause in what is, no doubt, an expensive military undertaking.

Putin's objective need not change: force the United States into a de facto alliance with Assad against the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh), thereby enabling him to tell Russians that the American worldwide regime change campaign he has vowed to defeat has been stopped cold in Syria, that the American president has been forced to eat his "Assad should step aside" words, and that Russia has returned to great power status—thereby ending decades of humiliation. What may change is the strategy for bringing about the kind of Washington humiliation that can boost him domestically and force Russia to be taken more seriously internationally. What might the change look like?

Instead of continuing a military campaign designed to eliminate all armed Syrian alternatives to ISIL, Assad, and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), Putin could facilitate open-ended peace talks by upholding a general cessation of hostilities in the west while reorienting the Russian-Assad military campaign toward ISIL in the east. Assad's negotiators in Geneva would simply stiff-arm any attempt to sideline him. Russian aircraft and Syrian ground forces (supplemented critically with Shia foreign fighters organized by Iran) would move incrementally against ISIL, calling on the American-led anti-ISIL coalition to support what Moscow would characterize as "the legitimate Government of Syria and its elected President in the battle against international terrorism." What would Washington do if faced with a proposition of this nature?

The recommendation here remains as it has been for many, many months: a coalition of the willing ground force led by the United States, consisting in large measure of regional forces, and excluding Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime, should destroy ISIL in eastern Syria and give the Syrian opposition the opportunity to work with local committees (now underground) to establish decent governance in ISIL-liberated Syria. Ideally this option would have been pursued with vigor after Russia's September 30, 2015 intervention, and implemented soon after the ISIL-orchestrated Paris atrocities of November 13, 2015. It really ought to be implemented now. Why wait for another terror operation hatched in Raqqa, perhaps one occurring in the United States?

Washington should also bear in mind that a few days of relative quiet in Syria may not in fact signal a strategic shift by Moscow: that the civilian-centric campaign of mass homicide by the Assad regime and its external supporters may resume soon, using the allegedly ubiquitous presence of the terrorist Nusra Front in western Syria as the justification.

Unless the administration is absolutely certain of the good intentions and humanitarian proclivities of Messrs. Assad and Putin, it should consider taking out an insurance policy against the resumption of collective punishment and civilian eradication, both of which feed the ISIL recruiting machine. Perhaps the naval task force that patrolled the eastern Mediterranean in the weeks following the August 21, 2013 regime chemical atrocity could be reconstituted. Should (for example) Assad make good on his designation of the heavily populated Damascus suburb of Daraya as a free-fire zone, perhaps some of his military airfields could be cratered by stand-off weaponry. Should (for example) Russian aircraft return to the business of bombing hospitals and stimulating refugee flows, perhaps they could be obliged to reckon with air defense from below.

That Syrians who would otherwise have been killed, maimed, traumatized and terrorized in recent days are instead tending to their children and celebrating life is a situation that must not be minimized, much less dismissed. It is unadulterated good news. Those who pressed for it deserve thanks for having achieved something of value, and having achieved it with no apparent leverage. But it absolutely must be something more than a temporary stay of execution. If Secretary of State John Kerry is to succeed in getting civilians off the bullseye—thereby giving Syrian political transition negotiations a chance—he will need a holster containing something better than blanks.

Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.