Even habitual critics of the United Nations should acknowledge that its Secretary-General has recruited top-drawer international diplomatic talent in the search for peace in Syria. Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi, and now Staffan de Mistura: statesmen who lack little in resourcefulness, creativity, discipline, and dedication. Yet if Joseph Stalin could ask sarcastically, “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?” surely, one may drop the sarcasm and rephrase the question: what leverage does the United Nations have to bind any of the conflicting Syrian parties to a settlement? Like the Pope, Staffan de Mistura commands no divisions. Like the Pope, his mission is one of conflict resolution and peace. If, however, the world’s only superpower is serious about its desire for a peaceful, negotiated political transition in Syria, it will produce the requisite divisions, whether the new special envoy wants them or not.
When John Kerry became secretary of state in early 2013, he quickly spoke the truth about the precondition for serious political negotiations in Syria: the calculation of Syria’s rump president, Bashar al-Assad, would have to change. Assad’s calculation in early 2013 rested on defiance: with Iranian and Russian support, he would not only refuse to accept the political transition process outlined by the June 30, 2012 Geneva Final Communiqué, but he would also defy with impunity President Barack Obama’s chemical weapons red-line. As 2013 unfolded, foreign Shia militiamen—injected into Syria by Iran—scored a series of military victories against nationalist opponents of the regime, even as Iran and the regime studiously ignored (and even facilitated) the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and al-Sham (ISIS, or Islamic State) in eastern Syria. Assad’s calculation was surely changing, but in the wrong direction.
That regime calculation rested on the assumption that US rhetoric would never match US action. The large-scale chemical atrocity of August 2013 put Assad’s premise to the test. He was forced, in the end, to surrender his declared chemical weapons stockpile. In return, he got an implicit free hand to do as he pleased to Syrian nationalist opponents and to civilian populations living in neighborhoods controlled by those opponents. His forces even unleashed canisters of chlorine on civilians. The US response to regime brutality was to condemn it “in the strongest possible terms” and to oblige the leverage-free Lakhdar Brahimi to convene a Geneva conference. It was a conference that ended with results foreseen by all (including Brahimi) except the Obama administration: an Assad regime borne aloft on the shoulders of Iranian-supplied foreign fighters, treating its opposite numbers and Brahimi himself with undisguised, gleeful contempt.
The proclamation of the Islamic State seems to have changed at least one calculation: that of President Obama. Two beheadings accomplished, at least in part, what a humanitarian abomination could not. His understandable, if regrettable, refusal to apply military force in Syria has been eclipsed by his appreciation of the fact and consequences of state failures in Syria and Iraq. Yet Assad, as usual, feels confident. He hopes that his strategy of militarizing and marginalizing the nationalist opposition he fears, while allowing jihadists to prosper and spread, will oblige the West to work with him against the terrorist threat he has done so much to manufacture. Obama, however, seems reluctant to take the bait: he recognizes that if Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki was an insurmountable obstacle to a political cure for the ISIS contagion in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad and his clan are Maliki multiplied exponentially in Syria. President Obama has correctly ruled out any collaboration with a regime whose very existence is a gift of unsurpassed value to ISIS.
Still, refusing to cooperate with the author of Syria’s state failure is one thing. Doing what it takes to achieve the objective of a negotiated settlement that preserves Syria, protects people, and drives a spike through the heart of ISIS is something else entirely. John Kerry’s judgment on this matter—that Assad’s calculation must be changed—will never be contradicted. Yet as long as the Obama administration tries to wend its way through the landscape of Syrian state failure with bombs for ISIS and action-free verbiage for Assad, the regime’s calculation will continue to move in precisely the wrong direction. So long as that calculation adheres to an azimuth of increased defiance, Special Envoy de Mistura will—like his distinguished predecessors—be shooting diplomatic blanks.
In terms of specifics, two issues in particular await administration action. The first has to do with Aleppo and its suburbs, where units of the Syrian nationalist opposition are besieged by the regime on one side and ISIS on the other. The second has to do with the putative ground combat component of the US-led coalition in Syria.
If Aleppo falls to some combination of the regime and ISIS, does the administration fully appreciate the fatal effect it would have on the ability of the United Nations eventually to bring Syrian parties together to discuss compromise and transition? Assad wants his opponents on the canvas and ISIS standing. He and his Iranian masters would be quite content to rule in western Syria, leaving the largely Sunni east—Arabs and Kurds alike—to the tender mercies of ISIS. Staffan de Mistura is essentially out of business if the Assad strategy, born at the outset of the Syrian uprising, succeeds. Is this acceptable to the Obama administration? If it is not, then why are ISIS targets in the Aleppo vicinity unmolested by coalition missiles and aircraft? If the fall of Aleppo were to move Assad’s calculation concerning negotiations even farther in the direction of “never and no way,” then why are regime military aircraft permitted to bomb with impunity neighborhoods containing rebel forces? Indeed, why are regime military aircraft allowed to fly at all during the course of the anti-ISIS air campaign?
The administration has identified the armed nationalist Syrian opposition as the ground component of choice for the coalition in Syria. Permitting ISIS and the Assad regime to exterminate that opposition in Aleppo and elsewhere would be, to say the least, a curious way to achieve an objective. Perhaps even more disturbing is the concept being floated in connection with the $500 million train-and-equip appropriation recently approved by Congress: that training would begin in 2015, and would culminate in the creation of a single brigade (4,500-5,000 men) by 2016 or possibly later. What is disturbing is not the time it takes to train, equip, and vet recruits: that can be accelerated and expanded rapidly if the intent is genuine and if coalition partners pile on. That which is worrisome is the possibility that once again the administration is playing word games: that its practical support for a beleaguered opposition—the designated ground component for coalition air operations—will be limited to a leisurely, open-ended training program, sealed off hermitically from events inside Syria.
The rise of the so-called Islamic State in Syria has given the Obama administration an opportunity to fix the disconnect not only between words and action, but also between objectives and strategy. The main objective remains a negotiated political settlement binding and protecting all Syrians within a united, stable, and pluralistic Syria. A strategy bereft of actions aimed at changing the calculus of the rapacious Assad clan in this regard is useless and counter-productive. Thousands of tons of ordnance dropped on ISIS can amount, diplomatically, to a shower of ticker tape if the author of state failure in Syria—ISIS’s best friend and enabler—is left unattended. Staffan de Mistura is in no position to call for military actions on the part of anyone: his mission centers on conflict resolution. Yet in terms of diplomatic leverage, how many divisions does the United Nations special envoy for Syria actually have? If the United States and its allies are AWOL and nature permitted to run its course in Syria, the answer is zero.
Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.