Keeping Vienna on Track

(Photo: Reuters. Protesters gather with others across from the Hotel Imperial where US Secretary of State John Kerry and other diplomats discuss Syria, in Vienna, October 30, 2015. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday he hoped progress could be made at international talks in Vienna aimed at finding a political solution to Syria's four-year-old civil war but it would be very difficult.)

If the Vienna Joint Communique of October 30, 2015 is to spur progress toward peace and political transition in Syria, the United States and its partners must first devise and agree upon a comprehensive collective strategy. With all respect to the dogged creativity of Secretary of State John Kerry, the administration’s eagerness for a deal with Russia simply must not trump or preempt consensus among allies and partners on the way forward. As inconvenient as they may sometimes be, relationships with friends come first. The second round of the Vienna talks should not take place until two things happen: The Assad regime must cease all mass civilian casualty activities (including bombings and sieges); and the United States and its partners must reach a comprehensive, collective strategy.

It is understandable—notwithstanding years of evidence to the contrary—that the Obama administration would want to hope and believe that Moscow is willing to push for political transition in Syria in accordance with the blueprint laid down by the Geneva Final Communique of June 2012. We have seen Washington grab at Moscow’s lapels before. Beginning in May 2013—when evidence was accumulating of the Assad regime’s systematic and contemptuous crossing of President Obama’s chemical red line—the United States implored Russia to facilitate a Geneva II conference involving all the parties to the conflict. The result of seeking an action-negating process at any cost was the fiasco of Montreux-Geneva in late 2013 and early 2014, where the Assad regime demonstrated its contemptuous rejection of the Geneva formula.

Just as the 2013 rush to Geneva was meant to provide a process alternative to action in response to Assad regime crimes against Syrian civilians, so the Vienna initiative seeks to substitute a process for acting against rampant regime criminality that has the effect of emptying Syria and making much of the country safe for the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, or Da’esh). In effect it is a plea to Russian President Vladimir Putin to take Washington off the hook for doing anything—either for humanitarian reasons or as an anti-ISIL war measure—to make it somewhere between very hard and impossible for Moscow’s client to commission civilian mass casualty events.

As these atrocities continue unabated in the immediate wake of the Vienna conference, it is clear that Moscow has no intention of making Washington look good. Indeed, it is even telling Gulf Arab leaders that, whatever they may think of Moscow’s support for Assad, at least Russia—a country capable of taking decisive action—stands by its friends and would never, ever think about lecturing any legitimate government about human rights, much less seek regime change.

Sensing that he is in a position of strength vis-a-vis a needy, over-eager Washington, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is now in the business of pocketing unrequited concessions. He expects to receive from his Western interlocutors a list of who, from the ranks of the Syrian opposition, is worthy enough to negotiate with the Potemkin Government of Syria, an order-taking and implementing agency of the Assad-Makhluf clan. This process of foreigners selecting Syrians will likely have the effect of further alienating the West from those resisting both the regime and ISIL. Mr. Lavrov has also given his interlocutors the assignment of identifying which Syrian armed groups merit designation as terror organizations, along with ISIL and the Nusra Front. He hopes—and has every reason to believe—that this exercise will further splinter the armed opposition to Assad and ISIL and drive wedges between Washington, Ankara, Riyadh, and others. He may even succeed in providing a diplomatic supplement to Russian air strikes, some of which are having the effect of providing close air support to ISIL.

Indeed, in the headlong rush to produce a process, point 6 of the Vienna Joint Communique was worded as follows, “Da’esh, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the U.N. Security Council, and further, as agreed by the participants must be defeated.” Thus the United States issued a bye to the single greatest purveyor of terrorism in today’s Syria—the Assad regime, whose depredations against civilians graduated it from its 1979 designation as a mere state sponsor of terrorism to the status of expert practitioner. Thus Washington turned its back on its own designation of Hezbollah in 1997 as a foreign terrorist organization, a designation applied to the organization’s military wing (active in Syria) by the European Union. It granted Moscow a veto over expanding the list of terrorist entities in Syria to those eminently worthy of receiving the designation.

The apparent eagerness of the Obama administration to curry favor with Moscow is as understandable as it is impractical. President Obama wishes, at almost any cost, to avoid taking any limited military countermeasures to protect Syrian civilians, notwithstanding the recruits produced by Assad regime atrocities for ISIL in Syria and around the world. He desperately wants to pursue a military campaign against ISIL as if the Assad regime does not exist. He earnestly wishes to believe that Russian military intervention in Syria—aimed at presenting him an unattractive binary choice between Assad and “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—is an unforced error that Moscow will regret, one reflecting weakness and desperation.

Yet none of this wishful thinking and ingratiating behavior will produce the result sincerely desired—an Assad-free negotiated end to a humanitarian abomination and political disaster that roils an already unstable region while stampeding hundreds of thousands of desperate people toward Western Europe. Vienna can be a prelude to and a trigger for the implementation of a Geneva Communique still serving as the basis of American policy, but only if two things happen first: civilian mass casualty events and starvation-disease sieges inside Syria stop forthwith; and the United States and its partners agree upon and pursue a common strategy aimed at producing a political transition led by Syrians capable of inspiring public confidence.

Too much is at stake to improvise unilaterally in the face of patient, bloody-minded Russian obduracy. A leverage-free approach to Moscow—and, for that matter, Tehran—in search of a diplomatic deus ex machina will yield bad results for Syria and damage Washington’s relations with those who ought to come first in any administration calculation—allies and other partners.

As for the Russians, let them get their client to stop all bombing and shelling of civilian residential areas and lift sieges in accordance with United Nations Security Resolution 2139. Let them perform before Vienna reconvenes. If they cannot or will not do so, they are useless in the context of Syria.

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