The Syrian Bridge to 2017

It has been a busy few days for the UN Security Council, what with Christmas and the New Year approaching. Resolution 2254 endorsed the diplomatic process launched in Vienna in late October, one aimed at ending a horrific war in Syria. Resolution 2258 reiterated the dissatisfaction of the Council with the manner in the Syrian regime and others have treated civilians. One thing is all-but-certain: Syrian civilians will continue to be slaughtered while the diplomats enjoy Christmas dinner and toast one another on New Year’s Eve. So it will continue through 2016 unless one of two things happens: Russia and Iran refrain from attacking residential areas and order their client to do the same; or the United States – with or without the help of others – takes steps to protect the innocent.

Since leaving government over three years ago, this writer has counseled Syrians and others not to give up on the Obama administration; not to believe that this administration would leave office in January 2017 not having protected from the Assad regime a single Syrian civilian inside Syria. The sheer size of the humanitarian catastrophe, its impact on Syria’s neighbors and allies of the United States, its contribution to the recruiting campaign of the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, or Daesh) in Syria and around the world – all of these things would surely mandate American action once diplomacy had run its course.

But with the advent of the Vienna process and an anti-ISIL administration ‘strategy’ tied closely to it, one must pose a question: will diplomacy – in the sense of process unending – ever run its course? Or is the administration consciously building a bridge from December 2015 to January 20, 2017, one it can cross without ever having rescued a single soul in Syria from the depredations of the Assad regime?

The conceptual undergirding of this bridge is the administration’s ‘theory of the case’ for beating ISIL in Syria. Acknowledging the inadequacy of an air-only campaign, the administration argues that the requisite anti-ISIL ground combat component must be indigenous. Erroneously characterizing ISIL in Syria as the product of a Sunni Arab insurgency (which it is in Iraq, whereas in Syria it is imposed), the administration applies the indigenous force requirement to Syria as a piece of counterinsurgency and civil stabilization lore. For this supposedly obligatory indigenous Syrian force to have the requisite size to close with and kill ISIL, it should, argues the administration, be a combination of Syrian Army and rebel units. For such a combination to come about – according to the administration’s case – Bashar al-Assad has to go, given that he is a mass murderer incapable of inspiring national unity. He may not go anytime soon, but his eventual departure is a prerequisite for a successful battle against ISIL. Surely the Russians and Iranians see the truth of this analysis. Surely beating ISIL in Syria is their top priority. Surely the Vienna process, now endorsed by the Security Council, will ratify this wish as reality. This is the ‘theory of the case.’

The Vienna process provides the bridge’s superstructure. Talks inspired by Moscow’s military intervention in late September 2015, the process assigns target dates to a blueprint for Syrian political transition agreed by the P5 and others in Geneva in June 2012. Negotiations between the Assad regime and the opposition are supposed to begin around the first of the year. A ceasefire should ideally take hold around the same time. Within six months there ought to be a transitional governing body created on the basis of mutual consent, one exercising full executive power. Sometime thereafter a new constitution should be drafted and approved. And in mid-2017 national elections – supervised by the United Nations – should occur.

So, if everything goes according to the Obama administration’s hopes, Assad and his enablers – unless preserved through the consent of the opposition – would be relieved of all governing authority and power by July 2016. This assumes, of course, some combination of regime willingness to play by the Geneva-Vienna rules and Russian-Iranian readiness to compel, if necessary, the regime’s cooperation. Evidence of such willingness and readiness is, to date, lacking. But Christmas dinner beckons. Surely all of this unpleasantness can be taken up in the New Year. And if it takes an extra six months to try to bring Iran, Russia, and the regime to the realization that national unity against ISIL requires the regime to go, oh well: it’s someone else’s problem at that point.

Moscow sees Syria as the place to stop cold what it characterizes as an American democratization and regime change campaign begun with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Barack Obama called on Bashar al-Assad to step aside in August 2011. Has Moscow intervened militarily in Syria so that it might accommodate Mr. Obama’s demand?

Tehran needs a healthy chunk of Syria to serve as a secure hinterland and base for its militia in Lebanon: Hezbollah. Bashar al-Assad has subordinated himself to Iran for this purpose. Iran sees no Syrian appetite for such subordination beyond the Assad-Makhluf clan and its coterie of enablers. Will it sacrifice its own Syria interests to accommodate Mr. Obama’s demand?

Does either Moscow or Tehran have as its top Syrian priority the defeat of ISIL? If so, why has the great preponderance of Russia’s air campaign hit everything except ISIL? Why have none of the militia assets organized by Iran wasted so much as a bullet against ISIL? Why is the battered remnant of the Syrian Arab Army not fighting ISIL? Apologists for the regime, Russia, and Iran will claim that nearly everyone bearing arms against Assad is ISIL in spirit if not in fact. Unlike those for whom they apologize, they may actually believe their own propaganda.

And the toll exacted of civilians by the regime and now Russia grows. Indeed, Amnesty International now reports that Russian air attacks in Syria “appear to have directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military target and even medical facilities, resulting in deaths and injuries to civilians,” and that such attacks may amount to war crimes. They certainly help ISIL’s ersatz caliph with his recruiting.

President Obama has expressed the hope that the removal of the Assad regime – an extended family and an inner-circle of murderous enablers – can be reconciled with Russian and Iranian interests in Syria. If Moscow’s interests boil down to a maritime gas station at Tartous and preserving a cordial relationship with a government presiding over a unitary state, no problem. If Tehran’s interests add up to trade, investment, and cultural relations, fine. But what if Russia’s goal is something entirely consistent with its military campaign to date: creating a binary regime-ISIL choice for the West? What if Tehran’s bottom line is preserving a Syrian land link to an organization that imprisons Lebanon and keeps tens of thousands of rockets and missiles aimed at Israel? Even if Tehran were to find a way to sacrifice the person of Bashar al-Assad, would this administration or any other sign up to preserving a terror organization’s stranglehold on Lebanon and strategic threat to Israel?

If the anti-ISIL ‘theory of the case’ and the Vienna process aim mainly to provide the administration a bridge over Syria’s troubled waters, the costs to Syrians, their neighbors, American allies, and perhaps Americans themselves over the next several decades will be enormous. Perhaps John Kerry can persuade the Russians and the Iranians that their Syria-related national interests should be subordinated to the battle against ISIL. God’s speed on that front.

In the meantime, there is nothing that prevents Moscow and Tehran from refraining from war crimes themselves and from getting their joint client out of the vicious business of deliberately targeting civilians. If they are neither able nor willing to do so, what does it say about the ‘theory of the case’ or the diplomatic process itself? If it is a bridge to 2017 that the administration wants, then it will not ask the question or seek the answer: it will instead subsume the obligation to protect civilians into the hoped-for prospect of a ceasefire, as if civilians are combatants. If the bridge is the objective, the subject itself will be avoided for fear of offending those whose presence in a long, drawn-out process would be an end in itself.

Syria is sliding toward an unstable, informal partition between Assad the Barrel Bomber and Baghdadi the fake caliph. Unless the issue of civilian protection is successfully addressed up-front, the ‘theory of the case’ and the Vienna process run the risk of facilitating and ratifying this worst of all outcomes. But if Washington, its allies, and its other partners put civilians first – in Syria, in Yemen, in Afghanistan, and everywhere else – 2016 can mark multiple turns in the right direction both in terms of protecting humanity and producing good political outcomes.

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: UN Security Council hall. (Photo: Flickr)