If you’ve been following Syria news over the past week, you’d be forgiven for thinking that feverish, Moscow-centered diplomatic activity was on the cusp of producing an agreement for a political transition in Syria. In reality, this convenient diplomatic veneer serves cynical purposes for Russia, but equally so for the US. This diplomatic kabuki theater distracts from the main issue—Washington’s Syria policy remains strategically adrift.
Unsurprisingly, the Russians saw in the mission of UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi an opportunity to continue to heighten their prestige as an indispensable world power. The Russians understood Brahimi was in a tight spot. The Algerian diplomat was desperate to avoid the inglorious fate of his predecessor, Kofi Annan, who promised much and achieved nothing.
Much like the Russians, Brahimi knew that the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, had no intention of leaving power. And again like the Russians, Brahimi knew that he had no leverage over Assad. If he wanted to preserve his diplomatic charade, he had to zero in on the weakest link: the Syrian opposition. This left the envoy perfectly aligned with Moscow. Hence, with Brahimi leaving Damascus empty handed following his meeting with Assad, it was hardly surprising that he regurgitated the Russian line in warning that the Syrians have a choice between a “political process” and “hell.”
Brahimi laid the groundwork for the contours of this “political process” ahead of his meeting with Assad. The envoy’s plan was first outlined in Le Figaro in late November, with someone “close to Brahimi” explaining that the plan stipulates the formation of a transitional government to oversee elections in 2014. The source explained that Assad would serve out the rest of his term until 2014, but only in a “ceremonial role,” and added that Brahimi remained “willfully vague” on Assad’s role after 2014, since the dictator rejects any proposition that sees his exit from the political scene.
This leak from Brahimi’s camp was a trial balloon, launched in part to see whether the Obama administration was willing to go along, and how much pressure on the opposition it was willing to countenance.
Indeed, Brahimi is said to have told members of the opposition that they needed to “come to terms” with the idea of Assad staying until 2014. But he needed to lend authority to his proposition. So, following a meeting in Dublin with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Brahimi’s entourage again leaked to the press that the initiative had the blessing of the US and Russia.
Although Clinton repeated the administration’s position that a future Syria “cannot possibly include Assad”—hence her statement that there was no “breakthrough” in Dublin—still, US allies were getting nervous. Turkey made it known that it opposed any deal that includes Assad. The French did the same, but were also worried they were being marginalized. Now that the US was dealing bilaterally with the Russians on Syria, a French official expressed concern that Washington was negotiating over its allies’ heads.
These concerns were not baseless. After all, US officials have expressed their belief that efforts to achieve military victory would only prolong the violence—indicating that their priority was not the regime’s defeat so much as stopping the violence. The Russians responded in kind, declaring that a decisive military victory in Syria was unattainable. Since the US remained opposed to militarily supporting the opposition, the logical implication is that a negotiated settlement was the only path forward. Therefore, Brahimi’s mission continues to enjoy the Obama administration’s backing.
Beyond the diplomatic masquerade, however, the heart of the problem is that, almost two years into the Syrian revolution, both Obama’s policy, and his desired endgame, are still obscure. The only discernible constant has been Obama’s resolute rejection of any form of intervention in Syria.
Accordingly, preserving a parallel track with Moscow is essential to the White House. It’s not that Washington really believes that the Russians are likely to support Western and US-allied regional interests in Syria. As Aaron David Miller recently wrote, nobody he knew in the administration “ever believed that [going through the Russians] would actually solve this thing.”
Enlisting Russian support was a cynical ploy. With Washington’s stated preference for a “peaceful solution,” talking to the Russians enabled the administration to maintain the pretense of meaningful diplomatic activity, all while allowing it to blame the lack of any breakthrough on Moscow. Lavrov was right in saying that some in the West were “praying” that Russia continues to block intervention, “as sanctioning it would mean they must act.”
The White House is happy to run out the clock doing its two-step with Vladimir Putin, knowing full well that neither the Russians nor the rebels, and clearly not Assad, will change their stated positions. As Ambassador Robert Ford noted, “three times the Russians have said they would pressure Assad and have done nothing.”
The difference between Washington’s cynicism and Moscow’s is that the latter’s is strategically focused. The Russians are acutely aware that, in reality, they don’t have a hand in this game. They have repeatedly said that they have no way to influence Assad’s decisions. Instead, Moscow knows that the myth of its centrality in Syria is a creation of the Obama administration. Washington gave them the opening, and they’ve milked it.
The real problem is what the US envisions for the endgame in Syria. While Washington continues to insist on Assad’s departure, it has nevertheless accepted several highly problematic points, not least being the formation of a so-called “national unity” government with regime elements, a proposal consistent with its earlier insistence on preserving “state institutions,” such as the security services. Both stipulations would only ensure a continued seat at the table for the outside patrons of these elements and institutions, namely Iran and Russia. Thus, Washington’s cynicism, without any clear strategic objectives, is unjustifiable.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.