For all his words about the strengths of democracy and the pitfalls of dictatorship, this was the key sentence in President Obama’s speech on Monday at the U.N. General Assembly: “The United States is prepared to work with any nation—including Russia and Iran—to resolve the conflict” in Syria.
Obama had not expressed this sentiment before, nor until a few days ago had any of his top aides or Cabinet secretaries. Although he and the leaders of Russia and Iran have a common interest in defeating ISIS, he couldn’t have openly joined an alliance with them, for three reasons.
First, given a history of tensions with those two countries—aggravated by Russia’s actions in Ukraine and despite the recent nuclear deal with Iran—any overt cooperation would be rife with mutual distrust and political risk.
Second, because ISIS is an outgrowth of Sunni Arab alienation from Shiite oppression in Iraq and Syria, an effective coalition against the movement must include Sunni leaders, to demonstrate that ISIS is not a legitimate tool of Sunni interests—and it was believed that those leaders would shy away from any alliance that included the Shiite stronghold of Iran. This is the main reason Obama eschewed a unified effort with Iran several months ago.
Third, and most awkward, if Obama went in with Iran and Russia, it would mean dropping his long-standing insistence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go.” In recent days, Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani, the Russian and Iranian presidents, have insisted that Assad must remain in power for any fight against ISIS to succeed. And so, a few days before the General Assembly opened, Secretary of State John Kerry publicly allowed that Assad’s departure might be delayed for a while.
In his U.N. speech, Obama tried to have it both ways. He rejected the idea that fighting terrorism means supporting “tyrants like Bashar al-Assad, who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children,” just because “the alternative is surely worse.” And yet, of course, he and others have accepted, however warily, precisely this idea. A calculation has been made that ISIS is worse than Assad; that, while crushing ISIS requires ousting Assad in the long run (in order to co-opt the jihadists’ main rallying cry), it might also require propping him up in the short run—to avoid the Syrian state’s collapse, which would strengthen ISIS all the more.
Obama has put forth a formula for reconciling the dilemma. “Yes,” he said, “realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out ISIL—but realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader, and an inclusive government, that recognizes there must be an end to this chaos so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuilt.”
The key phrase here is “managed transition.” It will be Moscow and Tehran, Assad’s sole outside protectors, that manage this transition, if there is one—and there won’t be transition unless these same managers determine that the “new leader” can protect their interests more securely than Assad can. Syria represents Russia’s only toehold in the Middle East and Iran’s gateway to interests further westward in the region (especially Hezbollah). Both powers regard ISIS as a threat not because it unleashes chaos on the Syrian people (Assad does plenty of that) but because it threatens their own interests in the region.
Perhaps some bromidic references to a post-Assad Syria will emerge from this U.N. session, but the facts are these. ISIS cannot be defeated without Iran’s direct involvement, which will be motivated principally by a strategic need to protect Assad (or a suitable substitute, if and only if Assad is deemed too weak to continue as Tehran’s servant). Putin has finagled his way into this game only because he calculated that the Syrian government was on the brink of collapse: The tanks and planes he mobilized were meant to shore it up and to ensure for himself a role in choosing a successor, should Assad fall; Moscow and Tehran share an interest in perpetuating Assad’s rule, but, in this endeavor, they are as much competitors as allies.
Where this leaves Obama is complicated. The United Stares has no vital interest in Syria, and Obama has no desire to get bogged down in a messy civil war. And yet the war is spreading; its disorder threatens allies in the region, and it has unleashed the most calamitous refugee crisis the world has seen in decades. When Obama first realized he had to act, he tried to build a coalition based on Sunni nations—Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, the Gulf states—and a new government in Iraq that pledged to be more inclusive toward Sunni militias and tribal leaders. But the Sunni nations proved less forceful—and the new Iraq less inclusive—than he hoped; the most promising coalition partner, Turkey, seemed more interested in pounding Kurds than jihadists.
And so, Obama has been forced to join an alliance of powers—Iran, Russia, and (take a deep breath) Assad—that always seemed to have the most potential, because their interests in fighting ISIS were most vital and least ambivalent. Alliances are rarely purebreds. Had Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill resisted allying with Joseph Stalin to fight Adolf Hitler, on the grounds that Soviet Communism was hardly less evil than Nazism, then they would have lost World War II while standing on their moral dudgeon. The war against ISIS isn’t nearly as titanic, but the principle is the same: Sometimes the world presents you with terrible choices, and you have to go with the least terrible—at least for the moment.
Obama subtly suggested as much in his speech on Monday. In his opening passages, amid the boilerplate about the U.N.’s guiding principles over the past 70 years, he noted that the United States “has worked with many nations in this Assembly to prevent a third world war,” in part “by forging alliances with old adversaries.” Later, he said, “No matter how powerful our military, how strong our economy, we understand the United States cannot solve the world’s problems alone.” In a passage about Ukraine, he explained that the United States and NATO imposed sanctions on Russia to enforce international norms about sovereignty and territorial integrity, not out of “a desire to return to a cold war” and “not because we want to isolate Russia—we don’t.”
In their speeches on Monday, Putin and Rouhani didn’t exactly act like Obama’s new best friends. Putin was particularly sour, accusing NATO of brewing discontent and fomenting a “military coup” in Ukraine. Rouhani blamed “the Zionist regime” (Iran’s description of Israel) for blocking the Middle East from pursuing the path toward “peace and purity” and “good-natured piety.”
Yet Putin also called for a “broad international coalition against terrorism, similar to the anti-Hitler coalition.” Rouhani declared that the nuclear deal, which Iran had recently negotiated with the P5+1 nations (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany), could be “the basis for further achievements to come.”
In recent days, some regional leaders—who, a few weeks ago, would have scoffed at the notion of a coalition with Iran or an anti-ISIS strategy that condoned Assad’s continued rule in Syria, even as a temporary measure—suddenly bowed to the reality of both. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said as much on Thursday. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi accepted the idea in an interview on Monday with CNN.
For those leaders to make such drastic turnarounds indicates only that everyone now realizes that the situation is desperate, that serious powers must take serious action, and that the only truly serious action—at least in the realm of arms and diplomacy—is the one that they saw, not long ago, as too stomach-turning to consider. In the choice between nausea and catastrophe, it’s wise to live with the nausea.