This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.
Two of the top foreign policy minds gracing the American scene—Henry Kissinger and Richard Haass—have weighed in thoughtfully on Russia’s military intervention in Syria: what it means, where it may go, what (if anything) useful might be made of it. One need not agree with all of their respective observations and prescriptions to appreciate fully the intellectual heft they bring to the debate.
Kissinger’s October 16 piece in The Wall Street Journal attracted some criticism because of one sentence in particular, “The destruction of ISIS is more urgent than the overthrow of Bashar Assad, who has already lost over half of the area he once controlled. Making sure that this territory does not become a permanent terrorist haven must have precedence.”
Shorn of context the statement surely rankles those who have suffered from Assad regime war crimes and crimes against humanity for over four years. Indeed, stripped of context the passage offers false confirmation to those who fear that in the end Washington intends to throw in with Damascus in the battle against ISIS—the political-diplomatic end-state sought by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yet context matters, and Mr. Kissinger threw no bouquets to Syria’s barrel bomber-in-chief.
Indeed, there is nothing in Kissinger’s sense of priority that contradicts the thesis offered in these pages: that the United States should make a major diplomatic effort to bind regional ground combat forces to a military campaign that would (in conjunction with coalition air forces) sweep ISIS from Syria, permit the establishment of a recognizable Syrian government, and enable—in the mother of all protected areas—the creation of a genuine, all-Syrian national stabilization force.
Kissinger posits that ISIS-held territory should be “reconquered either by moderate Sunni forces or outside powers....” The former could take years to accomplish, and time is the enemy. The latter is clearly the only feasible way forward. Sadly, the prevailing sentiment in the Obama administration seems to fluctuate between “It’s too hard to do” and “The regional powers won’t want to do it.” It all starts and stops with long-distance, navel-gazing analysis.
Kissinger makes the apt point that, “The U.S. proclaims the determination to remove Assad but has been unwilling to generate effective leverage—political or military—to achieve that aim.” His prescription is a “federal structure” for Syria that could “be built between the Alawite and Sunni portions.” With such a structure “a context will exist for the role of Mr. Assad, which reduces the risks of genocide or chaos leading to terrorist triumph.”
Without ruling out any scenario that can halt the violence and provide genuine protection to defenseless Syrians, Mr. Kissinger’s prescription is still problematical. It assumes that a continuing political role for Bashar al-Assad is all that stands between genocide, chaos, and a terrorist (ISIS) victory.
Yet what if Mr. Assad should fall off his bicycle and suffer a fatal heart attack? What if he, his extended family and his closest enablers were to board a plane and head for a well-earned exile in Minsk? Would any of this open the door to an unopposed and successful march on Damascus by ISIS?
It would not. The conflation of regime—the Assad-Makhluf clan and its inner circle—with government (including the Syrian Arab Army and Air Force) is understandable, but misleading. The assumption that the disappearance of the former would cause the collapse of the latter is ubiquitous, but entirely unfounded. Indeed, the departure of the regime would open the door to the kinds of internal Syrian discussions about security arrangements, transition and a united front against ISIS that are currently interrupted and preempted with midnight door knocks by regime enforcers.
Richard Haass (“Testing Putin in Syria” in Project Syndicate , October 15, 2015) advances the same regime-government conflation thesis: “As bad as the Assad government is, and as much as it has to answer for, this outcome [Putin coming to the aid of the regime] is arguably preferable in the short run to the regime’s collapse. The painful truth in Syria today is that a government implosion would most likely lead to genocide, millions more displaced people, and the establishment of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate in Damascus.”
Leave aside how these words would be creatively and unfortunately read by millions of Syrians, “The genocidal effects of Assad’s barrel bombings and starvation sieges on largely Sunni Syrians are regrettable, but better they should continue lest they be visited upon people currently enjoying the regime’s protection.”
Surely this is not Richard Haass’s intent. Yet the question is whether the excision of a clique trying to save itself through wholesale, civilian-centric criminality is the same thing as “government implosion.” The view here is that it is not. The view here is that the removal of the regime can enable the government and its security forces to do the kind of outreach that is currently forbidden.
It is not error that inspires the false caliph—Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—to pray for the political health of Bashar al-Assad and his family. Theirs is mainly a live-and-let-live relationship. Recent military pressures on the Assad regime came not at all from ISIS, but from rebels now under assault by Russia.
Indeed, Haass fully gets the Assad-ISIS connection. “Many fear that Russia’s latest activism will not only prolong Syria’s brutal civil war, but also strengthen the Islamic State. This could well turn out to be the case, as hatred of the Assad regime is a major recruiting tool. And, thus far at least, the Islamic State seems to be a low priority for the Russian military, which appears to be attacking mainly other anti-Assad groups.”
Haass goes on to say, “Russia seems to be playing the same cynical game as Assad: framing the war as a binary choice between the Islamic State and a regime that, however flawed, still deserves the world’s support.”
Mr. Haass hopes that Putin’s goal “would be to ease Assad out of power and establish a successor government that, at a minimum, enjoyed the support of his Alawite base and, ideally, some Sunnis.” Haass and Kissinger would seem to share the view (as articulated by the latter) that, “Russia’s purposes do not require the indefinite continuation of Mr. Assad’s rule.” Rather, “It is a classic, balance-of-power maneuver to divert the Sunni Muslim terrorist threat from Russia’s southern border region.”
Time—and the status of Bashar al-Assad—will tell if Russian objectives center on meeting terrorist threats, preserving a naval refueling station, rescuing a friendly state, and the like. The view here is that Vladimir Putin and his Iranian collaborators wish—for differing but compatible reasons—to preserve Mr. Assad in power indefinitely in as large a chunk of Syria as he and they can manage.
For Putin, Assad’s ongoing presence is a rebuke to Washington. He will want to force President Obama into an anti-ISIS alliance with Assad: this is why his forces engage everyone except ISIS. For Iran’s Supreme Leader, a “federal” system or a mini-state leaving its employee ensconced in western Syria perpetuates Tehran’s ability to support Hezbollah’s continued imprisonment of Lebanon and maintain its rocket and missile threat to Israel.
Henry Kissinger and Richard Haass have greatly enriched the discussion of Syria’s future and Russia’s role in it. There is much in their respective analyses that is cogent, useful and totally on point. Their conflation of regime and government is unfortunate but understandable, as the Obama administration cites it as one of its many excuses to refrain from protecting Syrian civilians from the genocidal effects of regime civilian mass casualty operations.
The thesis that Assad gone means Baghdadi in is false. But in terms of current American policy, it is an argument that definitely has its uses.
Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.