Syria: Hope for De-Escalation

Hope springs eternal in the Obama administration that a Deus ex machina in the form of a diplomatic process producing military de-escalation and Syrian political transition will enter unbidden from stage left and relieve the West of any obligation to counter the Assad regime’s systematic program of mass murder.  President Barack Obama, quite properly, has shown little or no hesitation in standing up to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  The pseudo caliph and his rapacious followers lack foreign backers capable of freezing American action.  Bashar al-Assad, however, has Iran and Russia in his corner.  This is enough to stalemate Washington in the face of the premier humanitarian abomination of the 21st century.  Indeed, it is enough to render Washington utterly and voluntarily dependent on the good will of Tehran and Moscow—of all parties—for anything resembling a decent, humane outcome emerging from the Syrian charnel house.  It is hard to imagine a sadder state of affairs, and not just for Syrians.

Talks between Washington and Ankara on the terms for establishing a protected buffer zone in northern Syria appear to be stalled.  Neither side trusts the other: perhaps for good reasons.  Both sides have gone long on language and short on action.  Each side may be content to call the bluff of the other, leaving both free to point fingers and do nothing.  Reputations aside, the big losers are the people of Aleppo and northwestern Syria.  Long accustomed to regime barrel bombs and starvation sieges, nationalist committees struggling to provide civilized local governance now find themselves pressed by not only by the regime, but by ISIL and the Nusra Front.  Unless Ankara and Washington set aside the pettiness and set about to create a protected zone that includes Aleppo, northwestern Syria may soon be lost entirely by nationalist forces.  This will further imperil and even doom civilians longing and pleading to be protected from the twin evils of ISIL and the Assad regime.

So into the Turkish-American breach steps Russia, with offers to host regime-opposition talks in Moscow.  Some in the administration actually welcome this initiative.  Having learned nothing from the Geneva conference fiasco of December 2013-January 2014, the credulous are willing to hope that Moscow will oblige the Assad regime to do something meaningful in the way of a negotiated political transition: as if Russia has decisive leverage over the regime; as if Geneva, which featured undisguised, unrestrained regime contempt for both the opposition and the United Nations special envoy, never happened.  One hears that, in certain administration quarters, disbelief is suspended for Moscow while criticism is heaped on a Syrian opposition understandably (and correctly) skeptical of what is on offer.

That which the administration is loath to consider is the strong likelihood that Moscow’s Syria policy is entirely in the service of the Assad regime’s survival.  Imagine that the time-buying, action-freezing promise of a Moscow-orchestrated diplomatic charade ultimately enables ISIL and the Assad regime to erase the nationalists on the battlefield, so that Baghdadi and Assad stand tall as the twin pillars of political-military power in Syria.  Even Vladimir Putin—devoid as he is of any sign of humor—would laugh himself sick over the corner into which Washington has helped paint itself. 

If Moscow’s twin pillar scenario is achieved, where will Washington look for a ground component for its anti-ISIL air campaign in Syria?  Although Obama would not want to shred his reputation and poison his historical legacy by making common cause against ISIL with a regime whose war crimes and crimes against humanity have been thoroughly catalogued, what would be his alternative?  From where, for example, would a Syrian opposition-based anti-ISIL ground component come once that opposition is all but gone?  Who will there be to train and equip?  Putin—and for that matter Iran’s Supreme Leader—are probably betting that President Obama, when faced with the twin pillars as the only things left standing, will swallow hard and cast his lot with Assad.  This Assad-America alliance—the shotgun wedding of Washington to a regime steeped in sectarian slaughter—would, of course, validate the ISIL brand and threaten to spread it virus-like throughout the Middle East-North Africa region.  No doubt Moscow and Tehran would see this development mainly as a problem for the United States and its allies.

Iran also weighs heavily—perhaps more than Russia—on administration hopes for a face-saving, gratuitous diplomatic bailout.  Publicly—and without a hint of shame—administration officials have suggested that anti-Assad moves by the United States in Syria would encourage Iranian-supported Shia militias to target American military advisors in Iraq.  Declaring a hostage crisis and surrendering preemptively to it is not a fit way for the United States to do its business.  Force protection in Iraq is indeed an issue: it can be addressed in ways that are effective and do not communicate weakness, vulnerability, and helplessness.  Privately, some administration officials worry that American moves to stem or stop mass murder in Syria would produce Iranian pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to demand that American forces leave Iraq forthwith.  Clearly lack of imagination is not the problem, at least in terms of imagining all of America’s alleged vulnerabilities.

What runs through all of this is the spectacle of Washington hand-wringing and agonizing while innocent people are being slaughtered and starved, tortured and terrorized, besieged and stampeded; unspeakable suffering all for the sake of sake of preserving a ruling clan that will do literally anything Tehran asks of it.  Lurking in the background is Washington’s palpable, undisguised hunger for a nuclear agreement with Iran: an agreement that may be well worth concluding on its own merits.  Yet Tehran seems to have concluded it can move forward on two tracks simultaneously: it can, under the leadership of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif, seek a nuclear agreement that frees it from economic sanctions; and it can, under the leadership of General Qasem Suleimani, pursue regional hegemony in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and even Yemen.  Both of these tracks lead to an elderly, frail, and not terribly world wise Supreme Leader.  He seems to be managing splendidly.  If he worries about unduly provoking the West by facilitating sectarian rampages in pursuit of hegemony Iraq and Syria he does not show it.

Washington, on the other hand, is paralyzed with self-doubt and numb with indecision.  Like Iran it can and it should play with vigor and confidence on multiple tracks.  It may well be that Turkey’s Syria policy—at least in terms of committing Turkish forces to help protect a buffer zone—is only hot air.  Yet is it beyond the capacity of a superpower, one that officially regrets past failures to stop mass murder, to devise ways and means to prevent Assad’s air force from unloading ordnance on defenseless civilians?  Is the United States incapable of doing so?  Or merely frightened?  And why is it—given the cast of state and non-state characters in this unseemly, horrific drama—that the United States alone is praying for the good will of parties that have anything in mind but good.

Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: A child plays at a deserted amusement park in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus December 16, 2014 (Reuters/Bassam Khabieh)