Obama Needs Putin to Salvage His Failed Syrian Strategy
Now that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is an accomplished fact, the Ukraine conversation, is all about consequences. And there will be a lot of them, intended or otherwise. In coming weeks how many fall to Moscow and how many to Washington? Case No. 1: Syria.
The Obama administration’s strategy in Syria has been headed for the loser’s corner at least since mid–2013. The Ukraine crisis looks likely to doom it for good. It is a matter of connecting just two dots.
The White House is now committed to supporting the provisional government in Kiev and what could turn into a long row of sanctions against Russia as punishment for its move into Crimea. This is partly because it believes the provisionals deserve Western backing, partly a matter of preserving U.S. “credibility,” and partly a refusal to acknowledge that Vladimir Putin pounced like a Siberian tiger in some part because he had been provoked by the Western allies.
However one evaluates these considerations, the stiffened posture Washington now assumes will quickly cost it Moscow’s cooperation in resolving the Syrian crisis at the very moment collaboration is needed most. In a matter of days or weeks, we could have another case of this administration shooting itself in the foot.
Two circumstances push this prospect to the fore. One, Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are on the record that they have so far failed in Syria and are now at a loss. Two, Bashar al–Assad, the Syrian president and Moscow’s client, is winning his gruesome waragainst an impossible-to-read array of insurgents who have even now failed to come up with a persuasive thought as to a post–Assad arrangement.
The Syrian war just entered its fourth year. The casualty count is nearly 150,000, mostly innocents; 9 million Syrians, coming on to half the population, are now refugees of one status or another.
“Where from here?” is the question. So it is worth looking at these two new realities.
Obama and Kerry lost what control they had on the Syrian question last September, whenthe latter told reporters in London that if Assad gave up his chemical weapons the U.S. would step back from its threat to strike by air. Within two days Putin and Sergei Lavrov, his foreign minister, got Assad to take a deal Kerry never intended to offer.
Ever since, Kerry has sporadically tossed out hints that the White House’s idea bank is empty. Last month he made the position official when he acknowledged as much in a meeting with lawmakers that was supposed to be private but was leaked.
A few days ago, the most recent ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, delivered the assessment that Assad’s opponents have failed to advance any coherent agenda as to what would happen were they to dislodge the dictator. Ford retired last month, but surely he was unofficially on duty the day he spoke to The New York Times.
Ford’s most startling admission was that Assad will remain in power, a reversal of Obama’s position even a few months ago that the regime had to go in any resolution of the crisis. Ford sees a chopped up nation in which Assad holds the major cities and most of the key territory.
“It is hard to imagine that Assad is going in the short term, and even in the medium term, to lose control of the area between Aleppo south to Damascus and then over to the coast,” Ford said.
“Over to the coast” is key. A week ago, the Syrian army took back the town of Yabroudnear the Lebanese frontier, positioning it to cut the insurgents’ supply lines. The rebels have since suffered further defeats elsewhere. The direction of the war grows more apparent.
Now, Russia’s Crimea move is playing in Damascus as a big morale booster. Assad seems to be saying something like, “You and me, Vlad. Together we’ll repel the West.”
Referring to the desultory talks Kerry had staked his game upon, a local journalist in the Syrian capital just told the Times’ Anne Barnard, “Frankly, their attitude is, ‘We don’t need Geneva.’”
Two bitter truths have emerged before our eyes; the more swiftly faced the better. First, the Russians hold the key in the Syrian show, and Kerry will have to revive that chummy relationship he built with Lavrov when times were sunnier. This can be done if the will is there; Lavrov is a skilled diplomat.
Second, Assad’s resilience raises the heretofore unthinkable: It is unappealing times ten, but he may have to be part of a solution that will finally stop the killing. This suggests that Washington will in some fashion end up dealing with him—almost certainly indirectly, thus giving Moscow yet more influence on this issue.
It is difficult to say what the Obama administration will do in the face of this new conundrum. No president would be comfortable in this fix, but in fairness, one more competent on the foreign side might have avoided it.
After a few days of sanctions ping-pong last week, Putin suggested that the two sides put the paddles down and talk, with a wide range of issues in need of many-sided cooperation in view. Syria is top of this list.
The administration’s reaction came swiftly in a vigorously combative briefing Susan Rice, the national security adviser, gave at the White House.
The White House may get some street cred for this in Kiev, but it is likely to come at a very high cost.