Vienna II: Who’s a Terrorist?

On Saturday November 14, the participants of the October 30 Vienna conference on Syria will reconvene in the same place. This despite the fact that Assad regime attacks on civilians have relented not in the least. Indeed, military aircraft of the Russian Federation have supplemented the civilian-centric bombing campaign of Moscow’s client, reportedly adding cluster munitions to the deadly mix. It seems that the subject of who is a terrorist—rather than protection of civilians—will dominate this second round.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond set the tone for Vienna Deux with the following statement, “The Russians are already bombing anybody who poses any kind of threat to the regime. When we talk about terrorist groups what we’re trying to do is narrow the Russians’ target set.” The supposition is that Moscow can be persuaded to accept some anti-Assad armed groups as non-terrorist in nature, and once so persuaded will then refrain from bombing them and the civilian residential neighborhoods where they are present. Presumably anything al-Qaeda-affiliated automatically (and justifiably) will qualify as terrorist. The question will be, who else?

There is no law against hope and even credulity. And when one comes to the table as a supplicant, replete with fulsome solicitude for an adversary supposedly making the mother of all mistakes, it is not as if one has face cards to play. Still, the scenario unfolding must be uncomfortable for what remains of the West. The discussion of who is a terrorist—a chat about who is fit to be bombed and who is worthy enough to come someday to an all-Syrian negotiation—focuses exclusively on armed groups opposing the client of Moscow and Tehran.

How bizarre is the parallel diplomatic universe that excludes Bashar al-Assad—a person eyebrow deep in mass terror—from a discussion of terrorism? How is it remotely possible to exclude Hezbollah—an Iranian pawn steeped in all manner of homicide from assassination to mass murder—from an exchange of who is a terrorist and who is not in the Syrian context?

Who exactly is forcing the West to agree to a lopsided process that will require some very uncomfortable discussions between Washington and London on one side, and Ankara, Riyadh, and Doha on the other? Ideally these discussions would have taken place three years ago, when the United States should have taken command as the ultimate arbiter of who gets what within the armed opposition to Assad. Ideally Washington would have begun—in 2012—a genuine train-and-equip program aimed at building a real Syrian national stabilization force, instead of trying (as it did in 2014-15) to raise a pitiful band of order-taking auxiliaries. Instead, it left the field to players quite at home with supporting sectarian actors. Now the long-deferred hard talk will take place under the paternal gaze of Vladimir Putin.

From the moment Bashar al-Assad succeeded in militarizing the uprising against his brutally corrupt and incompetent rule, Russia has labeled as terrorists all who have taken up arms against its client. And now the West will try to sweet-talk Mr. Putin into believing that some of them are actually really good chaps and ought to be spared aerial bombardment, along with their wives, kids, and parents. Worse, this sad scenario will unfold with Moscow and Tehran still resolutely supporting Assad’s political survival strategy of collective punishment and mass homicide. One may certainly argue that the Vienna conference should take place anyway. Fine. But why would the dominating subject not be the protection of civilians?

One may channel the thinking of Western statesmen as follows: there is no way Russia and Iran will stop Assad from doing his worst to civilians—we would be wasting our breath even to ask, there is no way we are going to lift a finger to protect Syrians inside Syria from regime mass murder. Sure, it produces recruits for the organization we’ve vowed to “degrade and destroy,” even as it empties the country of anyone able to walk, but these are the kinds of outcomes and risks with which we can live and sleep well. Surely it will sooner or later dawn on Mr. Putin that he has made a cosmic blunder coming to the aid of the loathsome Bashar al-Assad. Surely he will appreciate and use the off-ramp we are offering him, one that would give him the opportunity to provide a luxurious exile to Mr. Assad and his extended family.

Indeed, Vladimir Putin’s excellent adventure in Syria may not end well. He is definitely worthy of Winston Churchill’s description of Benito Mussolini: “Big appetite, bad teeth.” The West should help him discover the error of his ways, and sooner rather than later. Give this knock-off Mussolini sufficient time and he will accelerate the emptying of Syria.

Mr. Putin, however, knows what he is trying to accomplish. He wants to help finish off all alternatives both to Assad and to the criminal caliph of Raqqa. He wants to bring Barack Obama to his knees, making him eat his “Assad should step aside” words of August 2011. He wants to force the United States grudgingly to accept Bashar al-Assad as a partner in the war against the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, or Da’esh). He wants to tell the world that Russia is back and that the alleged democratizing regime change Jihad of the United States is dead.

More power to the West if it can parlay a pair of deuces—if that much—into genuine Syrian political transition, with Moscow and Tehran obligingly hustling Assad out the back door. Neither party likes or respects the head of Syria’s premier crime family. But for Russia and Iran Mr. Assad has uses that far transcend Syria.

Washington, London, and others remain committed to the ideal of a negotiated political transition in Syria. Yet as long as Syrian civilians remain on the regime’s bullseye there will be no dialogue, no negotiation, no compromise, and no united Syrian front against ISIL. Iran and Russia will cheerfully attend Vienna II without having obliged their client to stop the mass terror. One wonders if they were ever asked to do so. One wonders why the West courts humiliation so eagerly. A discussion of terrorism in Syria that fails to focus on mass murder and those who have enabled it is a discussion well-worth not having.

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: Flickr/Freedom House)