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The suspension of the Syrian peace talks in Geneva seemed to validate observers’ cynicism and pessimism in the run-up to the negotiations. The talks, naysayers argue, are pointless because Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad now has a chance at victory. “Assad is winning in Syria. Russia has shifted the balance of power there dramatically,” Joshua Landis and Steven Simon wrote in Foreign Affairs. “The real question is how much of Syria Assad can retake.”
The situation in Syria is indeed dire, and peace is a distant prospect. But much of the cynicism about the Geneva talks stems from false expectations about what they can achieve. Ending a civil war turned proxy war requires building peace one step at time, one actor at a time. The Geneva talks may be formally described as an effort to bring together the Syrian parties, but the most they can actually accomplish is getting key external actors involved in the civil war, namely the United States and Russia, on the same page. From the U.S. perspective, the point of the process should thus not be a settlement. Rather, it should be to create a rift between Russia and the Assad regime and to pull Russia closer to its own position. That would not by itself create peace, but it would be a significant and necessary step in the right direction.
It is possible to create such a rift, particularly since Russia does not seem to share the pessimists’ view that the Syrian civil war can be won through military means. According to press reports, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent the head of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) to Damascus to discuss the terms of Assad’s departure in late December 2015. Western intelligence sources cited in the press said that Assad rebuffed the powerful GRU director. For the United States, the GRU’s mission to Damascus should be a welcome sign that Moscow remains invested in a political process that produces a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
Russia’s red lines regarding that process remain unchanged: Moscow will not accept coercive regime change, and it will not endorse a process whereby outside powers pick the winners of the civil war. This policy is often construed simply as support for Assad. Clearly, the Assad regime is Russia’s proxy and is the beneficiary of Russia’s bombing campaign. But Moscow has never been wedded to Assad himself. Since June 2012, when the Geneva Communiqué that guides the current peace talks was concluded, Russia has supported a political transition in Syria that will, by definition, lead to Assad’s departure, since it requires the opposition to approve the composition of a transitional governing body. Moscow has reaffirmed its support for that position in two UN Security Council Resolutions, 2118 and 2254, since.
In this context, Russia’s bombing campaign, horrifying as it is from a humanitarian perspective, is best understood as a counter-escalation, a response to the gains made over the summer by the opposition, which left the regime in a precarious state. From Moscow’s perspective, the trend lines were leading to a violent overthrow of the Assad regime at the hands of proxies of the United States and its regional allies. The logic of a proxy war dictated that Russia put its thumb on the scale. It is clear, though, that the bombing campaign can only strengthen the regime so much; even together with Iranian support, Russia’s intervention cannot produce total military victory because Assad’s army does not have the military capability to retake the entire country. Even if it did, the level of violence perpetrated by the regime ensures that it would face an unending insurgency.
A negotiated solution is therefore Moscow’s only viable exit strategy. Yet the military intervention has produced a problem: it created the space for a negotiation by making clear to the opposition and their external supporters that, even with more assistance, they cannot win on the battlefield. At the same time, the greater Russian commitment and the tactical military advances have hardened the regime’s position in the actual negotiations—in a way that is unhelpful to Russian objectives.
The United States might be tempted to avoid playing by Moscow’s rules in Geneva and instead wait for the inevitable failure of its military campaign. As U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said in early February, “I think they have a self-defeating strategy. I don't know how long it will take them to realize that.” In this line of thinking, as the United States and its allies continue to arm the opposition, as the Islamic State (ISIS) and the regime increasingly come into conflict, and as the Syrian regime forces prove unable to sustain the current offensive, Russia will become bogged down in Syria like the Soviet Union did in Afghanistan. Why bother, then, investing in a doomed peace process?
But it would be both cruel and dangerous to adopt such a strategy—cruel because it would condemn Syria to many more years of grinding conflict and dangerous because inadvertent escalation between the United States and Russia is always a risk. Russian-backed regime forces and U.S.-backed opposition groups are battling each other daily while Russian jets challenge Turkey’s borders and U.S. planes fly overhead on their way to fight the war against ISIS. Russia and Turkey have already come to blows, and, according to press reports, there have been several near misses between the United States and Russia. Unless the United States is willing to risk war with Russia as it waits for Moscow’s strategy to fail, it too needs a process that leads to a negotiated settlement.
The way out of this dilemma is to play to Russia’s need for a negotiated solution. As Russian policy implicitly concedes, that solution will necessarily involve the current Syrian regime ceding power to some sort of unity or transitional government that includes many elements of the opposition.
But Assad could never accept that; his regime would not survive. Indeed, he can accept nothing less than total military victory. Assad chose to respond to peaceful street protests in 2011 with brutal repression because he understood even then that accepting the opposition’s modest demands would lead to his downfall. The regime has a narrow power base, is dependent on corrupt family ties, and has proved profoundly unsuccessful in managing the economy and providing for its people. Its hold on the country is based on its ability to destroy, not to accommodate, dissent. After five years of civil war, this is all the more true: Assad will reject any negotiated solution.
This latent divergence between Moscow and Damascus will come out into the open only if Geneva produces an agreement for Assad to reject. Washington should therefore do whatever it can to ensure that the talks resume, even if that requires accepting Russia’s conditions and officially putting aside the question of Assad’s future. The United States should refocus the next round of talks on creating a unity government that Russia will accept, the first task of which would be to arrange a general cease-fire and an end to the violence. The details of the deal are of secondary importance, because Assad will reject it. Russia will then lose its patience with the regime. At that point, the United States and Russia would have a chance at finding a common position on ending the war.
This would be a tall order. But in any proxy civil war, agreement among the external patrons of the warring parties is necessary for a negotiated peace. Getting the United States and Russia on the same page is therefore a necessary step to creating the leverage to bring the war to an end. The alternative is for both to drag out a destructive and dangerous proxy war in Syria: thousands more will die, millions more refugees will flee, and the risk of war between Russia and Turkey and even the United States will increase.
The road to a negotiated solution in Syria is a long one, full of switchbacks. The current Geneva process cannot fully achieve peace in Syria. But it can move Syria toward peace if the United States recognizes that the true purpose of the talks is not to determine the precise contours of Syria’s future. It is rather to accomplish the much more mundane task of demonstrating to Russia with abundant clarity that Assad is its problem, too.