Instead of offering competing plans and visions for Syria, Moscow and Washington should be working together to develop a compromise diplomatic solution.
Syrian citizens walking between the wreckage of destroyed buildings that were damaged after a government forces warplane crashed in the center of the town of Ariha, in the northwestern province of Idlib, Syria, Monday, Aug. 3, 2015. Photo: Ariha Today via AP
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In the fall of 2013 U.S. President Barack Obama described the Russian proposal to take Syrian chemical weapons under international control as a “possible breakthrough.” At the time, the Middle East was on the verge of another potentially devastating military conflict with the real prospect of a third large-scale American intervention in ten years. As a result, some portrayed the suggestion put forward by Moscow as a face-saving measure for Washington.
But most importantly, the Russian proposal was instrumental in that it managed to work around the “red line” established by President Obama. It was also deemed an example of Russians and Americans being able to compromise despite bitter disagreements and the overall negative context of the bilateral relationship.
For a while, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) somewhat sidelined any discussion of the domestic political situation within Syria. However, a series of recent events demonstrate the “Assad Dilemma” has remained as a topic of discussion very much alive in the cabinets of high-ranking policymakers.
Which leads to the following question: Is the Syrian president the “worst best option” to dismantle ISIS under the current circumstances, or does he have to be removed in order to let the “moderate opposition” run the country?
Recently President Obama authorized air strikes on ISIS as well as on the Syrian army if it could endanger training camps for Syrian moderate opposition forces. As expected, the decision triggered a backlash in Russia. Moscow believes such moves complicate the war with terrorist groups in the region. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insisted that, “The previous experience of American instructors preparing fighters of the ‘moderate opposition’ shows they ended up among the extremists."
Earlier this year, Washington launched the U.S. Syrian Rebel Program, which presumes the professional training of 5,400 fighters annually. Moscow sees moves such as these as shortsighted and counter-productive. Moreover, many Russian policymakers even share the vision that Washington regards the current crisis not through the lens of defeating ISIS but, rather, as an opportunity to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In the current situation it is critical for both Moscow and Washington to do their own part of the homework in order not to let the existing discrepancies transform into yet another spoiler to the relationship.
It is important that the Russian leadership should not overreact. Another surge of public anti-American sentiment would be detrimental for potential bilateral work on solving the Syrian problem.
First, America’s support for opposition forces – negative as it may look to Moscow for regional security – is something the Obama administration is committed to, and thus, can be considered inevitable.
Second, the supply of weapons and ammunition as well as training by U.S. military instructors and air strikes may indeed become enough to tip the balance in favor of opposition forces.
Third, the “American solution” to the problem, which to Moscow looks like a product of an inaccurate perception of the reality on the ground, might not get a UN Security Council mandate but will receive broad support from U.S. allies among the Gulf monarchies.
Trying to alter the first, stopping the second and upsetting the third would only further alienate Moscow’s position on the issue.
However, what now looks like a golden opportunity to get rid of a weakened Assad may prove harmful for American long-term interests in the region. The analogies with Iraq and Libya are obvious.
Whether one agrees to them or not, it is easy to foresee that a power vacuum created should Assad be overthrown will not make the region safer or more predictable. The number of interested players on the ground will multiply while the relationship between them would be more chaotic.
The Assad regime may embody everything that the democratic strivings of the Arab spring have been struggling against, but if the responsible stakeholders are serious about destroying ISIS, the Syrian army looks like a much stronger and reliable partner in this fight than a disjointed group of people with dubious backgrounds and uncertain priorities.
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If anything, there’s still no clear vision of what comes next for Syria and the Middle East if and when Assad is gone. Even if there’s a clear idea of a new state building approach for the country, it doesn’t look timely now that ISIS is gaining momentum.
Instead, the Syrian dilemma could have become a promising successor to the effective joint diplomacy on the Iranian deal. In this respect, the plan outlined by Lavrov in Doha may be worth looking into. It focuses on defeating ISIS by uniting efforts of all regional actors, using the manpower of the Syrian and Iraqi armies as well as the Kurds. It also would require a strong UN Security Council mandate.
Moscow is realistic in that the practical implementation of the plan would never be easy taking into account “complexities between the states in previous years.” But Russia seems determined to promote this agenda during the 70th session of the General Assembly next month in New York. Had this idea been adopted as a rough framework for a bilateral initiative on the issue, the huge international influence Washington exerts would have been a key component to its success.
Washington is not interested in an all-out engagement. However, military campaigns in such a complicated region can easily transform from “targeted strikes” into a years-long quagmire should Americans suffer any human or technical losses. Any action beyond those already taken would be disastrous for the personal legacy of President Obama, which the American leader is seriously concerned about and could inflict serious damage to others in the Democratic party.
On the brink of U.S. presidential elections, any initiative of such a scale should be shrewdly calculated and cautiously implemented. These are the political restraints that may leave space for a more comprehensive solution. In this case, the “Russian plan” like the one in September 2013 can also be useful as it minimizes the risks for Western involvement, especially since it presumes a more active role of regional players.
In addition, the Russian solution could once again prove to be a face-saving measure should the drawn red lines be violated, requiring a more muscular reaction from the United States. The difference from the plan of 2013 in political terms is that it can be adopted now that there’s yet no need to “save face,” which in theory minimizes reputation costs for Washington and Moscow alike.
However in order for this framework to get on track, the whole discourse on Russian-American relations should not be presented as a competition of “two visions” or “two respective plans.” Instead, it should be a jointly elaborated strategy for confronting the most dangerous terrorist organization in history.
So far, interested regional stakeholders don’t appear to be united in tackling this threat. This creates a perception that most of them are taking advantage of the situation to achieve their own goals: Turkey wants to downgrade the “Kurdish challenge,” the Gulf monarchies want to topple Assad, the U.S. wants to showcase its power and leadership, and Russia wants to score its own points by pointing to policy errors by the West.
However, when global security is under existential threat, the choice of personal ambition and political grievances over pragmatism and common sense may end up being too costly.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.