The main reason for the collapse of U.S.–Russia peace talks over Syria is that Washington and Moscow have fundamentally different interests in that country.
Vladimir Putin wants above all to preserve Syria as a politico-military foothold—Russia’s only such foothold outside the former Soviet Union. He could do so without keeping Bashar al-Assad in power as Syria’s president—Russian diplomats have decried Assad as a nuisance—except that there is no trustworthy successor in the wings. To the contrary, Putin fears (with some reason) that, if Assad goes, ISIS or some group like it would move in and take over Damascus.
Barack Obama, meanwhile, is pursuing multiple interests in Syria. On the one hand, he has said, “Assad must go,” though he has modified that demand to a desire for a gradual political transition. On the other hand, he also wants to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. In other words, he wants regime change—yet he also picks and chooses among the factions fighting for the same goal, backing the “moderate” factions and very much opposing the jihadist ones. And he wants to accomplish all these goals—easing out Assad, promoting one rebel group, and destroying the other—without committing American ground troops (beyond a small number of Special Forces), for the very good reason that he doesn’t regard Syria as a vital U.S. interest and therefore doesn’t want to get too embroiled in a nasty civil war.
The problem is, it may be impossible to accomplish all these interests at the same time.
Another way of putting this is that President Obama has not devised a coherent strategy for dealing with the multiple conflicts in Syria. He hasn’t set priorities; he hasn’t picked which interests he values the most and committed resources accordingly. Instead, he has pursued all the interests, as opportunities allow, hoping that the pins fall in place—that the coalition of U.S., Kurdish, and Arab forces defeats ISIS on the battlefield, that the larger group of interested nations (including Russia) reaches a formal agreement for easing Assad out of power in a mutually acceptable way, and that the new regime (as well as the current government in Iraq) devises a power-sharing arrangement for Shiites and Sunnis, thus negating the appeal that ISIS holds for many Sunni Arabs.
There were moments during the past year when this hope seemed plausible. But now, even Secretary of State John Kerry, the eternal optimist of diplomacy, has sighed and doused the flame.
Obama has been reluctant to set strategic priorities because doing so involves choosing a side—which, in this conflict, means aligning with terrible actors. If the primary goal is to oust Assad, it might make sense to side, if not with ISIS, then with some of the slightly less repulsive jihadist factions, for instance al-Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaida. If the primary goal is to crush ISIS, it might make sense to side more explicitly with Russia or Iran, or to allow the prolonging of Assad’s rule.
The problem with both approaches (and Obama sees this) is that they’re morally reprehensible and—more than that—strategically risky, possibly even self-defeating. Any overt alliance with Iran would so alienate moderate Sunnis—as well as the leaders of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf states—that they might fall in line with ISIS (a Sunni organization, after all) in order to repel what they’d see as a rising Shiite onslaught. A similar alliance with the likes of al-Nusra would do the same—and alarm Shiites, such as those heading the Iraqi government, as well.
There is another intractable aspect to this conflict. On the one hand, Assad’s army could be a potent force to rid the region of ISIS and other violent extremists. On the other hand, Assad’s continued rule is a magnet for violent extremists. As long as he remains in power, the appeal of ISIS or something like it will not vanish. In other words, if Assad is ousted, ISIS could fill the vacuum; if Assad stays, Sunnis will remain radicalized and join groups like ISIS.
In this light, Obama’s wait-and-hope gambit is at least understandable. It stems not from indecisiveness but from an awareness that all the choices on the table are bad. Hope is not a strategy, as the old saw has it, but all the other strategies in this battle are likely to backfire. Wait-and-hope has failed because allies are necessary for its fulfillment, and Russia—the ally that could force obeisance from Assad, if it chose to do so—recently made clear that Assad’s survival is its first and only priority.
Why Russian planes bombed and strafed a convoy of aid workers late last month, killing at least 20, is unclear. Nor is it certain that the pilots or commanders knew the targets were aid workers. (Russian officials have denied having anything to do with the attack, claiming, against all evidence, that the convoy wasn’t bombed but caught fire. They have always been incapable of admitting error or wrongdoing.) One theory—and this is plausible, regardless of the truth about the aid workers—is that the Russians want to destroy all the moderate anti-Assad factions, so the contest comes down to Assad vs. ISIS, forcing the rest of the world (very much including the United States) to make a choice—which would almost certainly be to side with Assad as the lesser of two profound evils.
What should Obama or his successor do about this? ISIS is losing territory on the ground, thanks to coordinated U.S. air strikes and joint Arab–Kurdish incursions, but few believe that even the collapse of the ISIS caliphate would end the sectarian fighting. No one has any good answers for solving the larger problem, perhaps because there aren’t any. Some have urged Obama to bomb the Syrian air force’s runways—a tempting idea, but this would be an act of war against Syria. Do we really want to go there? (Besides the general principle, it would force Russia and Iran to step up their assistance to Assad, compelling us to escalate as well or to back off, neither of which holds promise of success.)
Others, including both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have proposed a no-fly zone, enforced by U.S. air power, in order to protect Syrian civilians from Russian and Iranian planes. We may be edging toward this approach, though advocates should realize that enforcing such a zone requires a lot of force (in the air and on the ground); that it may require us to shoot down planes violating the zone (an act that could trigger more violence); and that, if we do this at all, we should do it as part of a multinational effort, and it’s unclear anyone else wants to join one.
Meanwhile, does the end of the Russian–American talks mean the revival of the Cold War? No, and for several reasons. First, the Cold War was a competition—political, economic, military, and ideological—between two systems, each having global reach. Russia today has no attractive ideology, its economy is stagnant, and its military, though improved from a decade ago, has almost no ability to project power. That’s why it’s fighting so desperately to hang on to Syria.
Second, even during the Cold War, Washington and Moscow held talks and signed treaties to reduce the chance of a major war and to cooperate on other matters. Now, too, despite the Syria flare-up, Russian and American military officers continue to notify each other of their planes’ movements (a practice known as “de-conflicting”), so they don’t crash into each other or mistakenly shoot each other down. At least for the moment, they continue to abide by most of their arms-control treaties (the one that Putin broke on Monday, requiring the reduction of plutonium stocks, is more an in-your-face gesture than an upsetting of the balance of power), their joint sponsorship of U.N. resolutions (for instance, those condemning North Korea’s nuclear program), and their shared-intelligence programs in counterterrorism. That’s because both sides have shared interests in these activities. If Putin starts pulling out of more agreements, then it’s time to start worrying—and possibly ratcheting up the pressure against him on other fronts. In any case, we don’t have shared interests on Syria, and so the talks have been scuttled as a waste of time and a distraction. It’s as a simple as that.