U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently met for extensive discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Among other things, they discussed how to restart almost certainly futile talks between the Syrian regime and Syrian rebels.
This latest American-Russian engagement must be seen not only in light of the failure of the U.S. “reset” to elicit helpful Russian behavior, but also in light of the failure of U.S. attempts to deal with Syria by working with Russia. American-endorsed, Russian-sponsored “peace plans” and “peace conferences” succeeded only in elevating Putin’s stature and extending Assad a lifeline. They gave the Assad regime time just when time was running out.
Russia is a key ally to the Syrian regime. It runs interference for Syria in the UN Security Council, provides Syria with many of the very weapons it uses to massacre civilians, and demonizes Syrian pro-democracy groups in its own propaganda.
The Obama administration’s deference toward Russia on Syrian matters has already proven to be as unprincipled as it is unwise.
There was a point in mid-2012 when it appeared likely the Assad regime would collapse. The Free Syria Army had gained significant territory and the numbers of pro-democracy rebels were steadily increasing. The regime had earned the hatred of so much of the populace that its overthrow seemed only a matter of time. But, the U.S. resisted strong sanctions against the regime or aid to vetted regime opponents. Moreover, it supported the Geneva Communiqué which, while calling for a transitional government, did not call for Assad’s departure.
Invigorated by U.S. and UN passivity, Assad employed more extreme methods. In April 2013, Israel, France, Britain and Turkey all reported evidence that the Assad regime was using chemical weapons. Rather than respond to this, the United States joined Russia in proposing a negotiated compromise between the Syrian regime and Syrian rebels. In May 2013, Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov announced plans for a conference based upon the Geneva Communiqué which, President Putin and Lavrov emphasized, did not require Assad to step down.
Then, in August 2013, Assad unleashed chemical weapons on thousands of civilians. This time, the Obama administration confirmed and condemned the chemical weapons attack, which, according to President Obama’s previously declared “red line,” should have entailed U.S. airstrikes. But Obama decided to submit the proposal for military action to congress, clearly wanting the crisis to pass. Smelling another opportunity, Russia engineered its plan for the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons by 2014 — on the condition that the United States refrained from striking Syria.
It was foolhardy to place faith in Russia on the issue of chemical weapons, after Russia had questioned and denied chemical attacks that had clearly happened. Yet trust them Obama did, failing even to demand as a condition that Syrian non-compliance trigger a UN authorization of the use of force. Syria’s minister of national reconciliation accurately praised the weak, final agreement as “a victory for Syria that was achieved thanks to our Russian friends.” The resolution effectively re-legitimized Assad’s regime by calling on both sides to compromise and confirming Assad’s role in continued negotiations.
Negotiations were useless. Rebels knew that if they laid down arms Assad would crush them. And, in the absence of major military setbacks, Assad had no reason to compromise. Diplomats claimed that just getting the two sides together again was an accomplishment, but it was really a boon for Assad, giving him time to seize the upper hand with the help of Iranian militias and Hezbollah fighters. Meanwhile, on the other side, Islamist extremists moved more aggressively to hijack the Syrian revolt.
In spite of all of this, the administration endorsed yet another Russia-sponsored “peace conference,” in Moscow in early 2015. This time, even the goal of a transitional government was dropped, benefitting Assad.
More talks won’t do. The Syrian people cannot “coexist” with a regime that has committed some of the worst atrocities the world has ever seen. The U.S., with Middle Eastern and European partners, should give arms and aid to moderate, vetted opponents, and address the dire refugee and humanitarian crisis. It is much more troublesome to vet rebels now than it would have been before, but it will be far more difficult to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria if we lose all of our moderate allies. Nothing radicalizes the opposition more than U.S. and UN indifference to their plight; the Islamic State wins recruits in part by positioning itself as the only force that can oust Assad.
American foreign policy in Syria has been less than principled and wise. The obvious lesson that nothing good comes out of cooperation with Russia in this area does not seem to have made an impression.
This article was originally published at Washington Examiner on May 26, 2015. Read the full article here.