In fact, Russian planes have struck mostly the non-jihadi forces rather than those of Daesh. But even if the non-jihadi insurgents are terrorists under Putin’s definition, it is not their troops, but Daesh’s, that will return to terrorize Moscow in the name of a secessionist caliphate. So, subordinating his protectionist motivations which would identify Daesh as his primary target, Putin evidently wants to rid Latakia, Hamah and Idlib provinces of non-jihadi rebels, create a safe-haven for Assad by creating a defensive zone somewhere north of the line between Hamah and Latakia, protect Assad’s base territory and his familial home ground within it, and, from that shelter, decimate Assad’s opponents, beginning with those supported by the West.
Putin appears willing to grant that political reform is needed in Syria, that Assad should negotiate with “the legal opposition,” that Assad is not himself necessarily an inherent and ultimate part of the needed reform, that Russia is not inextricably bound to Assad himself, and that the Syrian people should decide their own future. But fundamentally he opposes regime change, remains unwilling to abandon Assad personally and wants to demonstrate Russia’s firmness in standing by its allies by contrast with Western vacillation and inaction respecting theirs. Inconveniently, Assad is not willing to negotiate with anyone likely to insist on his replacement let alone to change the basic nature of the regime or submit any proposal to a decision of the Syrian people. As Assad continues to assert, he is fighting Islamist terrorism and so cannot understand the countries, like the United States, that oppose him yet trumpet their anti-terrorist, anti-extremist policies. Plainly, Moscow agrees.
Obama, however, takes the view that Putin poses a false choice and that without proximate regime change, the confrontation with terrorism in the form of Daesh and al-Nusra cannot be won. And of course Obama does not consider Assad’s non-jihadi opponents terrorists. Indeed, Obama articulates for the United States a double confrontation: one with Assad and a second with the jihadis, each the enemy of the other.
We have here two differing definitions of the problem, two differing priorities, two differing theories about the conflict and about who and what is part of the crisis and its resolution, and two differing objectives. Moreover, unlike the United States, no serious geopolitical complexity confronts Putin. He wants to clear the complicated field into two options: back (or at least negotiate with) Assad or watch Daesh win. He will defend Assad against all the challengers, pure and simple. However the more Russia engages militarily, the greater the potential geopolitical confrontation with a variety of countries, not just the United States and not just the potential for a dog-fight over Syria absent rules of engagement and “de-confliction.”
If simple balance of power logic no longer provides sufficient theoretical guidance for the labyrinth of Syria—seventeen countries plus the European Union and the UN, all of them with stakes in the outcome, were invited to the two-day October talks in Vienna and again in November—what then are the possibilities for U.S. foreign policy?
The first albeit least desirable is to negotiate the differences within, among and between the various Syrian groups and their various patrons and external states with stakes in the outcome, in effect to broker a political resolution, however temporary and probably unstable, but acceptable to the full panoply of stakeholders. That would require finding some kind of accommodation with Assad and the Alawites, perhaps with help from Assad’s Russian ally. President Putin is clearly prepared to pay the price for his investment in the anti-Islamist, anti-terrorist dimension of the conflict and his wager on Assad. Yet, as already noted, Putin has indicated some flexibility about Assad’s tenure. When asked recently whether keeping Assad in place was a matter of principle for Russia, its foreign ministry spokeswoman replied “absolutely not, we never said that. We are not saying Assad should stay or leave. His fate should be decided by the Syrian people.” But keeping Assad in whatever capacity would require President Obama to walk back another “red line” in addition to the one about Assad’s use of chemical weapons and the one about putting no U.S. boots on the ground, namely, that there can be no solution in Syria that includes Assad in any meaningful position and for any length of time and certainly not as president. For his part, Assad would have demonstrated unequivocally that he prevailed through brute force and persistence.
Obama and the West would be left with the consolation that additional thousands of lives would be spared and that the emigration wave would probably abate, surely a relief to Europe. Of course, even if the conflict subsided or ended, millions of refugees would still be left outside Syria. And even leaving aside the thousands in the Balkans, would they voluntarily return to Syria and, if not, would they be deported from Turkey and Jordan? The single-most underreported, under-analyzed element of the Syrian crisis is the enormous financial, social and political cost being paid by Jordan, which of all the countries affected by the conflict is the least able to bear that burden. While Hungary, Poland and Slovakia balk at taking a few thousand Syrian immigrants, Jordan has, according to UNHCR, taken in nearly 750,000 refugees from Syria, the equivalent, conservatively, of 7.5 million in Germany, and that on top of the waves of Jordan’s previous immigrants from the West Bank. Meanwhile, it is many multiples of times less well-resourced than any country in Europe. Some massive program will need to be constructed to deal not just with Syria itself but with Jordan and its Syrian emigres. On Syria’s, north, UNHCR estimates about 1.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, which has almost the same population as by far the most generous European country, Germany, which has agreed to take in half as many, about 800,000.
Still, Obama has been willing to consider a “managed transition” from which Assad would not emerge as the long-term president of Syria, an option the Europeans support. In a way, this would call Putin’s hand on his putative flexibility. The Europeans and, especially, Turkey and the Gulf States (perhaps through the Gulf Cooperation Council) would have to agree to the specifics of any such accommodation as would now Russia and Iran. So would Assad himself, his Syrian supporters, and his Shiite partners. Finally, so too would the non-jihadi opposition, although that potpourri would have little alternative. Iran would be the most stalwart defender of Assad, but even Iran is more interested in Shiite interests in Syria and Lebanon than in Assad’s personal ones. In fact like Russia, Iran has indicated its willingness to accept a limited tenure for Assad premised, according to an Iranian official, on the principle that “of course it will be up to the Syrian people to decide about the country’s fate.” Iran’s deputy foreign minister recently affirmed that President Bashar al-Assad should be part of presidential elections, if he chooses to do so: “Only Assad himself can decide on his participation or non-participation,” the implication presumably being that the Syrian people should decide their country’s fate through elections in which Assad should be permitted to stand (i.e., “participate”) and, potentially, to succeed or fail. If Iran were part of the transition agreement, presumably Hezbollah would also concur but, if it did not, its support for Assad would hardly be sufficient to sustain his eroding position, let alone reverse it. Perhaps the flexibility about Assad among the foreign powers is the brightest spot in an otherwise bleak landscape. Presumably some kind of transitional government with a fixed term, very circumscribed authorities, and a clear (ultimately electoral) exit path would meet all of the interests and principles.
It seems very unlikely that all of this could be accomplished unless, after the transition, Assad and the Alawite community were willing to play a much less prominent role in exchange for guarantees of their own safety. They fear retaliation and with good reason. Perhaps Assad himself could now be convinced to leave Syria for a luxurious retirement, even though he has rejected that suggestion in the past. He is unlikely to accept a European venue where a variety of other dictators have landed, anxious that he will be prosecuted sometime in the future. Perhaps Iran could provide a sanctuary. However, the Alawites as a whole are not leaving, and their position inside Syria would need to be assured.
Of course any such accommodation would not quiet Daesh and the other Islamist insurgents but it would focus on them the force of the Kurds, the Syrian Arab Coalition and, importantly, the Syrian national army (in that event, with support from the West, Russia, Turkey, and the Arab countries). In short, it would simplify the contest and make traditional diplomacy and military policy more possible. The willingness of Russia and Iran to consider a different future for Syria could be a starting point for some way to untangle the cross-cutting and discordant groups and interests.