Syrian situation on the ground
Is the strategic situation changing inside Syria? There are developments that suggest it is. The Assad regime is mounting an assault today on the northern enclave in rebel hands. Unconfirmed reports suggest that regime forces have recaptured Idlib, a key city held by the Free Syrian Army.
Significantly, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also reported that the Syrian government is laying mines on the borders with Turkey and Lebanon, a measure designed to keep foreign forces out and curtail the rebels’ cross-border cooperation. There is no reporting about the border with Iraq, but Iraq is the land route between Syria and Iran, which Assad will probably not want to imperil. The borders with Turkey and Lebanon are the likely infiltration routes for foreign special forces and support to the Syrian rebels.
Yesterday, moreover, Russia dispatched two planeloads of humanitarian assistance to Syria. Raise your hand if you think the two IL-76 cargo aircraft contained only “humanitarian” goods. (OK, you with the hands up, go de-mine the Syrian border.)
The hour is late. The fact that the US and EU have no momentum does not mean that no one has; with each passing day, it is more likely to mean the opposite. If Assad is able to regain control of his territory, there will be no acceptable – no unifying – pretext for intervention. The battle for this objective appears to have already started. As between the dithering of the West and the cynical pragmatism of Russia and China, the latter seems to be looking pretty good to the Arab League.
The road not taken
What should the US have done by now? Adopted a determined objective of our own – in my view, it could only have been removing Assad, preventing a takeover by Islamists, and brokering the establishment of a consensual, multi-party government – and pursued the objective pragmatically but in a principled manner. It is very possible the objective could have been achieved without military action.
Regarding the pragmatism: Russia has a stake in Syria. It doesn’t matter whether we think she should or not; she does. Get over it; stop haranguing Russia pointlessly in public forums, and concentrate on herding Russia toward our objective. If Syria is not taken over by Islamists, Russia wins. So do we. That should unite us in riding herd on the plans of the Erdogan government, as well as Iran’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s.
In any case, Russia has always been the key to removing Assad without the need for military intervention, and in late January and February, Russia was even obliquely communicating a willingness to trade Assad for a new model. The character of Syrian territory as a strategic factor for Russia – whether it is hostile or friendly – is of more importance to Moscow than is Bashar al-Assad.
A solution in which the Syrian people were empowered to operate more freely in a true multi-party government, under the aegis of multinational protection against both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, would be the most desirable, achievable outcome. It is not possible to broker this outcome while ignoring Russia, but it would be possible to broker it by including Russia. There are enough competing interests, between the US, the Arab world, the EU, Russia, and Turkey, to leverage everyone into a favorable compromise. The overriding principle should be that the Syrian people be relieved of Assad but do not fall prey to Islamists – and that is a principle that the governments of most of the Arab League, as well as Europe and Russia, could unite around.
A key principle of the Reagan administration, that negotiating with the old Soviet Union on human rights was integral to global security, should underlie the US approach to Syria. We need not hand Moscow a third-party revolution in Syria; we would do better to warn Russia that that’s what she’ll get if she doesn’t work with us – and then focus on the political conditions in Syria. Russia may retain a special relationship with Syria as we are watching over its liberalization, but the guarantee of a more liberal political atmosphere will do what it always does: empower the liberalizers and foster transparency and truth. Russia’s relationship with Syria should depend on adapting to that.
But only the US has the power to ensure that condition. None of this would be easy. I can think of few things less fun than dealing with Russia and Turkey on Syria. But a program like this is feasible, or at least it has been, because there are so many competing interests to leverage. US leadership is what is missing in all this – and it will not look like leadership to anyone else unless it contains an element of enforcement. (The reason why Russia’s position is starting to look more like leadership to those in the region is precisely that it does.) Everyone should be worried that if he doesn’t compromise and accept the basic features of the US position, he won’t be in on the solution.