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Can Russian diplomacy end the Syrian War?

January 30, 2017 (Photo Credit: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Potentially the best result emerging from the recent Syrian peace conference in Astana, Kazakhstan, is the agreement of Turkey, Russia, and Iran to oversee a reduction of hostilities in northwestern Syria. Such an outcome would mitigate a humanitarian catastrophe, enable nationalistic Syrian rebels to separate themselves from al-Qaeda’s Jabhat Fatah el-Sham (JFS), and perhaps set the stage for useful, all-Syrian negotiations in Geneva. 

The obstacles to success are daunting. But it is an initiative that may be worthy of American support.  

Astana was about Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran trying to consolidate a common approach to calming and ultimately ending the Syrian crisis. The three parties have differing motives. Are they operationally compatible?

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin took full advantage of American foreign policy failure in Syria to bolster himself domestically and occupy center stage in Syria, both militarily and diplomatically. Putin played policy judo with Oval Office rhetoric about people stepping aside, red lines not to be crossed, and the inadmissibility of civilian slaughter. He intervened decisively to save a feckless but useful Syrian client. The point Putin was able to make to the Russian public was critical: we have defeated an American-abetted attempt at regime change and we are back, after decades of humiliation, as a great power.

Surely Putin has given some thought to what might come after a successful military campaign. Taking a lesson from American failures in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 – and perhaps from one unfolding now in eastern Syria – Russia knows about the importance of post-conflict stabilization. Although armed conflict continues at decreased levels, Moscow now seeks diplomatically to consolidate the military gains secured by its air campaign in coordination with Iranian-directed ground operations involving Shia foreign fighters mainly from Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

If consolidation involves restoring Assad regime (meaning the family and its entourage) rule in Syria to what it was before March 2011, Russia’s military involvement in Syria will long outlive Vladimir Putin. Surely a stable Syria requires the marginalization of a corruptly incompetent regime that has waged war unmercifully and illegally against civilian populations. What good will Russian air and naval bases do Moscow if the state platform on which they rest amounts to a discredited family and its retainers? Is Russia willing to pour resources into a bottomless abyss for Syrian reconstruction, knowing the kinds of people who would oversee the process?

If what Moscow has in mind is an effective power-sharing arrangement to end the anti-Assad rebellion and put Syria on a pathway to reconstruction and reconciliation, it can count on its client to push back. Mafia-like enterprises do not do power sharing. The head of the operation – Bashar al-Assad – is confident Putin needs him more than vice versa. Assad has in hand the military victory a dispirited West deemed impossible. And if he has any doubts at all about Russia, he has none about Iran.

For Tehran, the uniqueness of the Assad regime is its willingness to subordinate itself completely to Iran on all matters related to Hezbollah: Tehran’s long Lebanese arm of regional penetration. Hezbollah’s ability to dominate Lebanon and threaten Israel depends, in Iran’s view, on a secure Syrian hinterland and a compliant Syrian government. Tehran fully understands the nationalism and independence of Syrians. In the Assad regime it has a dependent entity immune to nationalist pride.

A marginalized Assad is, therefore, unattractive to Tehran. If what Russia seeks is an Assad regime shorn of key executive powers so that a “transitional governing body” – something to which Moscow agreed at Geneva in June 2012 – can operate effectively, it may find itself opposed by Iran. Perhaps Russia can obtain from anti-Assad Syrians something for which no American diplomat could ask: keeping the Syrian government at the disposal of Iran and Hezbollah for an agreed period of time.

Ankara has no interest at all in the Assad clique clinging to power in all or part of Syria. Syrians aside, Turks have paid the highest price for the sanguinary political survival strategy of the Assad regime. From Ankara’s perspective Syria will remain in ruins, hemorrhaging humanity for as long as the regime exercises power. But Turkey has had to deal with the reality of an AWOL America; of an administration that tried leverage-free diplomacy; an administration that elected to chase ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State) in eastern Syria with the Syrian Kurdish arm of the PKK – an American-designated terrorist organization.

If Ankara and Moscow are on the same page in terms of marginalizing Iran’s Syrian tool, then Washington’s support is merited and potentially important. For the Obama administration, getting and keeping a nuclear agreement with Iran dictated speaking loudly without a stick in Syria. Presumably the Trump administration – even if it elects to respect the nuclear accord – will not be so well-disposed toward Iranian domination of Syria.

Frederic C. Hof, director at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, served as a special adviser for transition in Syria at the State Department in 2012.

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