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Syria: Maybe the Bridge is Best, After All

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 28/03/2016 Ambassador Frederic C. Hof

Syrian peace talks in Geneva, which have yet to feature negotiations between opposing parties, are in recess. Violence is down, humanitarian assistance (though spotty) is moving, but the map to the promised land - political transition - remains a blank sheet. The two parties - Russia and Iran - who have applied military muscle in Syria have no interest in transitioning their useful Syrian client to anywhere. A leverage-free Washington implores them to change their minds for the sake of an anti-Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) Syrian united front. But Moscow and Tehran not only know what they want, but they work to get it. Washington, on a good day, gets table scraps.
Even in retrospect it is hard to blame President Barack Obama for hoping he could check the Syrian box with soaring rhetoric about people stepping aside and stern warnings about red lines not to be crossed. Like many of his countrymen he thought that the 2003 invasion of Iraq per se - not the absence of an accompanying civil-military stabilization - had produced disaster and was proof of the inability of Americans to do anything at all useful of a military nature in the Arab World. Yet a botched occupation and bloody insurgency in Iraq had a specific cause, one repeated in Libya in 2011. It is not as if military operations in the Middle East are predestined to fail.
In under six months Russian President Vladimir Putin, presiding as he does over a great power whose GNP is roughly the size of Spain's, managed to do that which his American counterpart deemed impossible: without sliding down a slippery slope into a bottomless quagmire, he militarily altered the ground truth in Syria so as to achieve a political objective. He succeeded in securing a client whose collective punishment and mass eradication survival strategy has wrecked a country, created a humanitarian abomination, sent waves of humanity fleeing into neighboring countries and beyond to Western Europe, and made much of eastern Syria safe for the people who, in the past four months, have performed mass atrocities in Paris and Brussels.
Russia's stated objective is to save the Syrian state. Since Bashar al-Assad is seen by Moscow as personifying Syria as Putin does Russia, saving the Syrian state means saving Assad. Moscow has strengthened Assad's hand immeasurably just in time for negotiations supposed to produce "political transition" in Syria. No wonder Assad's negotiators treat the proceedings with contempt.
Moscow now presides over an incomplete but welcome "cessation of hostilities" in Syria. It presses its supremely confident client to dabble with an American-craved peace conference and, at long last, turns its military attention toward ISIS. These initiatives are connected. Putin hopes to have Washington accept Assad as its Syrian partner against ISIS. This would define victory. This would enable Putin to tell his domestic audience, in effect, 'We are back as a great power. We have defeated the American regime change and democratization agenda in Syria. We will defeat it in Ukraine as well. The man Obama told to step aside is now his partner. Indeed, in battling Daesh Assad is his senior partner.'
An administration that sees no efficacy in the projection of American military power in the Middle East (if anywhere) will not likely consider steps to protect civilians in western Syria if Russia and Assad resume city-busting bombing or to eliminate ISIS in eastern Syria with a professional ground combat force coalition-of-the-willing, one top-heavy in regional and European units. What then is possible to achieve politically when one rejects acquiring leverage?
Secretary of State John Kerry may still believe he can persuade Iran and Russia that Assad is pure poison for Syria and pure gold for ISIS. He should consider the possibility that they are already acutely aware of this fact. Kerry is not a stupid man. Surely by now he must know that they know. Tehran and Moscow both need Assad, each for different but compatible reasons. Neither the Iranian Supreme Leader nor the Russian President loses sleep over the price their joint client has exacted of his countrymen for opposing his brutally corrupt rule. Both see ISIS as their guy's ticket back to polite society.
When Kerry launched his latest Syrian peace initiative last October in the wake of Russia's military intervention, this writer warned that the objective might be process without end: a bridge of empty talk over Syria's troubled water to January 20, 2017, one enabling the administration to leave office without having protected a single Syrian in Syria from Assad's murder machine. Now it seems that process-without-end might be the best that can be expected from the Obama administration.
That which exists now, which did not exist in October 2015, is the imperfect, but still useful, cessation of hostilities. If it holds, people will live who otherwise would be slaughtered by Russian and regime air attacks; people will be fed who would otherwise starve under regime sieges; and people will be inoculated who would otherwise breed epidemics in besieged areas. Local governance could sprout in localities not hammered by barrel bombs. And who knows? Syrians with the means to do so and the knowledge that the opposition is negotiating in good faith may, at long last, move against the family that sees Syria as its private property.
Provided the Obama administration can resist shaking the hand of he who will ideally stand trial someday for war crimes and crimes against humanity, the bridge to January 2017 may - no guarantees here - produce an American commander-in-chief less willing to let Putin freely pose a growing threat to the peace. If the cessation of hostilities holds, it may give Barack Obama that which he truly seems to want: a semi-contained Syrian crisis he can hand off to somebody else as he leaves Washington.
Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, served as a special adviser for transition in Syria at the State Department in 2012.

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