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America's Syria Policy Mishmash

February 19, 2014 Topic: Great PowersRogue StatesTerrorismWMDSecurity Region: Syria

America's Syria Policy Mishmash

Why Russia succeeds and we fail.

Secretary of State John Kerry now is blasting Vladimir Putin’s Russia for its support of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and the breakdown in Geneva talks aimed at finding a way of ending the killing in Syria. He complained on Monday that Russia is providing Assad with “so many more weapons" and political support. According to the New York Times, he added, “They’re, in fact, enabling Assad to double down, which is creating an enormous problem."

The Times piece that quoted Kerry’s remarks in Jakarta, Indonesia, was produced by reporters Michael R. Gordon, David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt, who also offered a pungent analysis of the state of play in Syria and the American predicament related to that tragically war-torn country. The piece suggests, between the lines, that the Obama administration’s diplomatic policy on Syria is essentially in tatters. It quotes an unnamed “Western official" as saying, “I’ve never seen [Obama] more frustrated—not only with the Russians but with the failure of anything his own administration has tried to do."

It tried to help broker a settlement to the three-year-old civil war, and to that end it was willing to deal with Russia, even though Russia continued to support Assad. But now Assad appears to be gaining a significant military advantage, which diminishes any possibility that his regime will enter into serious peace negotiations. So it’s natural for Kerry and his boss, the president, to condemn the Russians.

But consider the distinction between Putin’s actions on Syria and Obama’s. Putin’s foreign-policy aim in Syria is quite simple. He will support his ally, Assad, against the threat of being overrun by opposition forces bent on destroying his regime and killing him. His policy seems based on three foreign-policy imperatives.

First, Russia has a naval base in Syria that it naturally wants to protect and maintain. Second, significant elements of the rebel forces are Islamist fundamentalists, including Al Qaeda-linked factions, bent on exploiting the Syrian chaos to establish an Islamist beachhead in the region. Putin has suggested that Western governments should perhaps be less blasé about the potential rise of Islamist radicals in Syria if Assad is swept away. This, he believes, could pose a serious threat to any nation in the crosshairs of Muslim terrorists, including the United States as well as Russia. Third, Assad is a traditional Russian ally, and great nations, in Putin’s view, don’t abandon their allies when they find themselves beleaguered.

Based on these factors, Putin’s policy is clear and unadorned—provide Assad with what he needs to protect himself against the threat posed to his regime, his life and his followers, particularly the Alawites and Christians. (A frequent opposition rallying cry early in the rebellion was, “Christians to Beirut; Alawites to the coffin.") Putin will engage with the United States and other nations, as he has, in attempting to foster a negotiated settlement to the civil war, but in the meantime he won’t terminate his support for Assad and his government.

Now compare that rationale and policy with those of the United States, which are less clear and less simple and seem weighted down with contradictions. It wants to foster a negotiated settlement, with Putin’s help, but it insists Assad’s ouster must be part of the deal. Assad has said, however, that he won’t step down, and it seems unlikely that Russia could get Assad to engage in serious discussions when his downfall is a prerequisite to the talks.

The United States wants selected opposition forces to be involved in the talks, but it isn’t clear who can speak for the rebels. Indeed, secular forces favored by Washington have been under attack by Al Qaeda militants, with hundreds killed in this opposition civil war within the broader Syrian civil war. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has warned against any ceasefire agreement that could be exploited by terrorists.

The United States wants to wield significant influence in bringing about an end to this tragic conflagration, but it is not willing to put forth either serious military leverage or significant support to the rebels in the form of weapons and materiel. Obama has made clear he will not involve America militarily in Syria, and he has been reluctant to provide significant weapons for fear they could fall into the hands of Islamist radicals bent on harming the United States.

But the Times piece reported that frustrated U.S. foreign-policy officials have dropped their opposition to suggestions by Saudi Arabia and other regional states that they would send advanced antiaircraft weapons to “vetted" rebel groups, who might then be in position to blunt Assad’s effective helicopter attacks on opposition forces and civilians in key strategic locations. So here again we come to a lingering question faced by U.S. policymakers regarding Syria: What’s more important—regime change in Syria or thwarting the possible terrorist activity of those who also want regime change in Syria?

Thus does U.S. policy in Syria appear to be a kind of diplomatic mishmash. The United States wants Russia’s involvement so it can exercise leverage on Assad, but it approaches possible talks in ways that deprive Russia of its leverage. It wants to bring forward "vetted" opposition groups, but it can’t be certain of what kind of actual influence such groups may have. It wants influence in unfolding events, but it isn’t willing to take the risky actions necessary to generate influence. It wants to ensure that dangerous weapons don’t fall into the hands of Islamist terrorists, but in frustration it will accept actions on the part of other nations that could place dangerous weapons into the hands of Islamist terrorists.

What this suggests is that there just may not be a significant role for the United States in this tragic war—absent a major military effort to alter the balance of power on the ground, which Obama correctly views as posing a political disaster for himself and his party.

In his Jakarta remarks, Kerry complained that the Assad regime had done nothing to usher in its own demise but rather continued to fight for its survival. He added, “And I regret to say they are doing so with increased support from Iran, from Hezbollah and from Russia."

This is diplomatic whining. Of course Assad is going to fight for his survival. And of course his allies will support him so long as they perceive it to be in their interest to do so. The only thing that could change that would be a significant shift in the regional power balance. As America weighed the question whether it should seek to rearrange that power balance, it became clear that the disincentives outweighed the incentives. America can retain its national dignity by simply accepting the reality of this situation, doing whatever it can in the current constricted circumstances as opportunities may arise, and refraining from the international blame game. Great nations don’t whine.

Robert W. Merry is political editor ofThe National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book isWhere They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.