The latest round of peace discussions in Geneva have reportedly produced an agenda for direct talks between Syria's regime and the opposition. For United Nations Special Envoy Staffan di Mistura this is a major procedural accomplishment. But what must happen for the process to produce peace? The recipe for success is complex, and a key ingredient is missing: Washington.
Having secured militarily the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Russia now hopes to convert battlefield success to political victory. President Vladimir Putin sold intervention in Syria to the Russian people as a counter-strike against an American regime-change campaign. He was, of course, tilting at a straw man: albeit a talkative one. The only 'regimes' threatened with change by the Obama administration's loquacious performance in Syria were those of American friends and allies.
For Moscow, however, the key question is "What next?" Bashar al-Assad has served his purpose as poster boy for Putin's state-saving pantomime. Russia, however, knows there is no Syrian state. There is a mafia-like family overseeing a 'government' of order-takers.
Moscow could use a Syria capable of bringing something other than a rapacious appetite to the bilateral relationship. It does not need a Levantine North Korea. If Putin himself does not know it, his Syria-savvy lieutenants do: the Assad regime is the antithesis of competent governance; it is poison for Syria's rehabilitation.
What Moscow may want is to lure prominent opposition figures into a national unity cabinet recognizing Assad's continued hold on the presidency and security services. The opposition might well receive assurances about detainees to be released, sieges to be lifted, amnesties to be respected, and refugees to be returned. There might even be special organizational arrangements for reconstruction, so that rule-based countries and international financial institutions might consider making investments, grants, and loans even with Assad still on the scene.
Russia might, in sum, welcome a peace settlement in which the Assad regime shares power and refrains from doing its worst. Such behavior could, over time, hypothetically produce for Russia a Syria stable enough to make military and naval bases worthwhile; one prosperous enough for trade and arms purchases.
Six years of collective punishment and mass homicide have, however, produced no evidence of the regime's inclination to share anything but misery. This is hardly unknown in the Kremlin.
Washington might well proceed on the assumption that Moscow wants from Syria more than a Pyongyang on the Barada. But does Russia have the leverage to force the regime to negotiate in good faith and then honor its agreements? Assad has his own bloody-minded ideas on how Syria should be run, and he has the enthusiastic support of Iran. Tehran sees Bashar al-Assad as a uniquely willing order-taker when it comes to putting Syria fully at the disposal of its Lebanese surrogate: Hezbollah. It will not want his authority limited.
The Trump administration should explore the possibility of finding common ground with Moscow on Syria. It must not, however, replicate the verbose, empty-handed, self-defeating approach of its predecessor.
For the United States to pull its weight in the search for a diplomatic end-game in Syria, the following steps are required to increase pressure on the Assad regime:
- Accelerate the defeat of ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State) in eastern Syria, using American combat forces and others to neutralize the enemy and minimize civilian casualties. Work closely with the Syrian opposition to create competent governance in liberated areas. Keep the Assad regime – the catalyst for violent extremism in Syria – out. Construct a ground force "coalition of the willing" to stabilize and defend liberated areas.
- Plan and implement low-profile defensive measures in western Syria to contest the Assad regime’s terrorist-friendly program of state terror. Pilots in regime aircraft dispatched to hit hospitals, schools, marketplaces and other civilian targets should know that the homicidal free-ride has ended. If Russian aircraft persist in civilian terror they too should encounter risk. Indeed, such behavior would be a strong indicator of the impossibility of Russian-American cooperation in Syria.
- Support with arms, equipment, and training those anti-Assad rebel units with which the United States has had relationships over the years. To abandon them now would be to make major, unrequited concessions to Al Qaeda, pro-Assad Iranian-led militias, and the regime.
- Take the lead in shaping a plan for Syria’s reconstruction, one based on the requirement that the Assad family and entourage would have no role in its implementation.
These steps would help Moscow make the point to Assad that business as usual is over: that Washington can no longer be counted on to act as a supine observer of mass slaughter in Syria. If Russia proves hostile to this attempt to boost its leverage with Assad, then at least its intention will be clear: support for the full restoration of an Assad police state over a smoking ruin called 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.