It’s hard to fight a war when one’s allies can’t agree on an enemy. And that is exactly the situation the United States has faced in Syria. As Washington has tried to build a coalition for the fight, it has had to manage allies in the Gulf that want to fight Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad but not radical Islamists. It has had to deal with Turkey, which stands against Assad and radical Islamists, but mostly just wants to take on the Kurds. Another U.S. ally, Israel, watches the swirling entanglement of enemies with uncertainty, and seems ready to intervene if major threats materialize. And finally Germany wants to arm the Kurds, and U.S. Special Forces have already partnered with them. In all this confusion, it isn’t surprising that the coalition’s results against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also called ISIS) have been lackluster.
Enter Russia, with a lean coalition and a decisive goal. Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to restore his country’s power and prestige in the Middle East. In Syria, Russia is moving in to save its last Arab friend, Assad, from being replaced by a radical Sunni government or (less likely) a pro-American government composed of the current opposition members in exile. After Syria, Russia is looking to Iraq, where U.S. prestige has taken a hit as ISIS has managed to hold territory. For Russia, Iraq could be the greatest prize of all, with its 150 billion barrels of oil and history of failed U.S. intervention.
In the Middle East, Russia has several advantages. First, there aren’t as many contradictions in Russia’s interests there. By comparison, U.S. policymakers have the impossible task of pleasing many key allies, whose demands are often non-negotiable and mutually exclusive—the Israelis, the Saudis, the Qataris, the Turks, and the Iraqis. Russia has two governments on its side—Iran and Syria—both of which fully endorse its presence in the region. A third partner, Iraq, is quickly coming along.
And then there is popular perception. Alarmingly high numbers of people in the region believe that the United States is up to no good, and the United States hasn’t done much to convince them otherwise. Meanwhile, the Russian promise of applying full force for a quick solution naturally appeals to those whose lives have been put on hold for the duration of this crisis.
The United States has a couple of choices. It could demand that Russia to stop its campaign, but that would only play into the hands of those who spread rumors that the United States is not really interested in defeating ISIS. It could allow Russia to go it alone, but if the Russians do succeed in stabilizing Syria and Iraq without the United States, as they seem determined to do, it will be a major blow for the U.S. government. Further, the Russian intervention against every rebel group risks opening the door to another tidal wave of jihadism, which would hurt all parties involved. The United States could follow the lead of Turkey and the Gulf States, which want to ramp up support for the rebels. But if it does that, it will find itself with a group of radicals who are impossible to control at the end of the fight. And yet, if the United States joins Putin’s version of an anti-terror coalition, it is effectively endorsing a man (Assad) it has accused of dictatorship and wiping out civilians.
There is another option: the United States and Europe should reject all calls to pour more fuel on the fire. Instead, they should work with Russia, Iran, and Turkey to cut the flow of weapons into Syria.
The shared endgame for the West and for Russia is a federal arrangement, in which the non-Salafist Sunni rebel elements, the Kurds, and the Alawites peacefully coexist. To achieve that goal, all parties must cooperate in the fight against ISIS and other radical elements, while working toward a ceasefire between Assad and the non-Salafist rebels. To bring the Assad regime on board, Russia should offer a guarantee of protection and a pledge to revisit Syria’s 2011 election law, local election laws, and revisions to Article 8 of the 1973 Syrian constitution. This section states that the Syrian Baath Party is the sole lead party of Syria, and although Assad would of course be opposed to changing this stipulation, he could (under pressure) allow for free and fair elections in newly created autonomous regions. Before then, he must agree to hold a referendum on a federated Syria and disputed territories.
Syria is several billion dollars in debt to Russia. The United States could ask Putin to use the promise of debt relief to Syria’s shattered economy as leverage over Assad, pressuring him to revisit a political solution. In such a scenario, Assad would get to bow out and save face in a transparent election. That outcome may be deeply unpalatable to many, but it is hard to think of an alternative. If Assad falls in any other way, the Salafists militia would proliferate and the Alawites, Druze, and Christians could be wiped out, along with any moderate Sunnis. And if he doesn’t leave office, the fighting could rage indefinitely.
Of course, an electoral transition cannot happen without further talks and a sustained ceasefire, not to mention international monitoring. Only the combined weight of Russia and the United States can plausibly force those conditions.
Syria is several billion dollars in debt to Russia. The United States could ask Putin to use the promise of debt relief to Syria’s shattered economy as leverage over Assad, pressuring him to revisit a political solution. Russia might agree. After all, the alternative for Russia and its allies is to indefinitely prop up a Syrian army and government that has basically collapsed. With Russia’s economy contracting, a long slog in Syria could be unpalatable to Putin.
In return, the United States and the European Union could tie limited sanctions relief for Russia to supporting the Syrian transition. They could also rely on their partner, Turkey, to pressure Russia to see the wisdom of a negotiated solution. Turkey plans to expand trade with Russia form $32 billion up to $100 billion dollars in the next five years. The two are also looking to build the 60 billion cubic meter per year Turkish Stream gas pipeline to supply the EU market. The United States and European Union could sweeten the deal for Ankara by returning Patriot missile batteries to Turkey, which were supposedly removed because they needed upgrades and because the Syrian air force is considered to have less reach ever since Assad lost most of northern Syria. With Russian jets in the skies, Turkey is again nervous. This could warrant an extra security guarantee, but should come as part of a deal.
The European Union in particular must also do its part to soothe Russian concerns about Syria becoming a breeding ground for hardened Chechen militants, members of groups such as Jaish al-Muhajireen, who may launch attacks on former Soviet states. To do this, European countries can make it clear to Turkey that continued attacks on the Kurds and a failure to stem financial and weapons flow to the Jaish al Fatah (which include Chechen fighters) could affect Turkey’s EU accession process, which is tied to several billion dollars’ worth of aid to Turkey. Of course, Chechen militants have also joined ISIS, but targeting external support for all of the radicals in Syria is only one essential component of a broader approach to reduce their reach—which could go all the way to Moscow, Ankara, or Washington.
Once all sides agree to talks, the parties could convene in Moscow, which would satisfy Russia’s desire for playing a leading role in the region. These talks could perhaps succeed in bringing the rebel and government negotiators into direct discussions, which the Geneva II talks failed to achieve. For this, Turkey could guarantee continued financial aid to the remaining non-Salafists, conditioned on a formal parting of ways with Jabhat al-Nusra and a formal commitment from remaining rebel groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, to protect minorities. In turn, Russia must let Assad know that direct talks have to happen, because Putin cannot allow Syria to be a bottomless pit of military and financial aid.
For the duration of the negotiations and during the transition, the Syrian army and non-Salafist rebels would be allowed to keep their weapons, but only to defend their communities from ISIS and other terrorists. A contingent of observers would be in place to oversee the process. Meanwhile, the only combatants allowed on the battlefield, in coordination with both sides of the coalition, would be non-regime forces fighting the Salafists—that is, the YPG (the Kurdish People’s Protection Units), which number 25,000, and government and rebel forces in static defense of their communities. Given intense controversy over the role of the YPG, their movements would have to be negotiated with the Turks. Ultimately, removing Salafist fighters from the fray will be key to lasting peace in the region.
The new Syria would have to be a federalized country. Even Assad has recognized as much; he has made clear that he has effectively given up on re-taking some areas from the rebels. In an Alawite autonomous region, Russia would get to keep Tartus. It would have responsibility for guaranteeing protection for Christian minorities and for its former allies. The Gulf States and Turkey would continue to police their safe zones, offering financial assistance and peacekeepers.
In the Sunni areas, international aid would be designed to peel away support from the Salafists and allow the Russians and the Western Coalition to tackle ISIS. Of course, aid cannot make a fanatic put down his or her gun, but by supporting politicians in the peace process, there is the opportunity to hinder recruitment to the Salafists’ cause. A carefully designed aid effort would need special oversight, since the opportunity for waste and graft can be extremely high.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish units would be the ground force, cutting off Raqqa in Syria, and strangling ISIS, while Russian- and U.S.-backed forces in Iraq continue the fight on the Iraqi side of the border. The Kurdish units have remained relatively neutral with regard to Assad (although they note he must eventually leave power peacefully) and have maintained good relations with the Russians, Americans, and the non-Salafist elements of the Syrian rebels.
One thing is certain: Only the big players in this crisis have what it takes to effect change. For the initial talks for such a plan, Moscow has already hosted senior rebels, Kurdish leaders, and the Iranians. But it has limited ties to the Gulf States. It goes without saying that the West will thus have to use any leverage it has with Saudi Arabia to get the country to stop supporting Sunni radicals. In fact, the United States has already demonstrated a willingness and ability to do so in its 2008 diplomatic push to force the Saudis to limit support for the Salafists in Iraq.
There is also the question of who will pay the bill for post-conflict reconstruction. According to the United Nations, Syria’s economy will take at least 30 years to recover. Russia and the United States should lead an international donor conference for Syrian reconstruction, similar to the 2003 Madrid Conference for Iraq reconstruction, which raised over $33 billion in grants and loans—a fraction of what Syria would need to rebuild, but a start. Russian-U.S. cooperation on this project could also usher in a new era of soft power to influence potential allies.
Can such a tangled web of diplomatic leverage achieve results? Perhaps the era of peaceful competition of the United States and Russia for influence in Afghanistan until the late 1950s hints at what can be achieved when aid is used for farm machinery, irrigation canals, and factories, rather than anti-tank missiles and AK-47s. Even still, the absence of free and fair elections in that country offers a lesson in how quickly progress can be derailed.
The past is an indicator of how quickly things can change. In 2009, when U.S. President Barack Obama launched a diplomatic outreach program to Syria, Assad said that “We would like to welcome him in Syria, definitely; I am very clear about this.” Obama responded by highlighting problematic issues, but expressed hope for future engagement. That same year, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki accused Assad of harboring terrorists who had recently hit Baghdad. Today, Iraq is effectively Syria’s new ally. And there was no ISIS in 2009, only a weakening al Qaeda in Iraq. Seeing how quickly things have changed is a reminder not to rule out anything in the Middle East.
One thing is certain: Only the big players in this crisis have what it takes to effect change. The end game will not please everyone, and trying to build super coalitions of dozens of nations for endless rounds of talks will result in more deadlock. Worse still, competing coalitions risk pouring resources into competing aims.
It’s time for the United States and Russia to work together to stop the flow of death machinery into the Syrian inferno, and to remove from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria those who will never negotiate with anyone. That will clear the playing field for a peaceful transition and, perhaps, a better future for Syria.