Putin’s Rope-a-Dope Approach to the Syria Peace Talks

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Boys help their injured friend after an airstrike on Aleppo's rebel-held al-Fardous district in Syria on June 2. Frederic C. Hof argues that Moscow, Tehran and Assad count on the West doing nothing militarily to prevent Assad from committing civilian homicide on an industrial scale. Abdalrhman Ismail/reuters

This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

The June 1 deadline for Syria's Assad regime to lift impediments to United Nations emergency food and medical deliveries to desperate Syrians has come and gone. The promise of air-delivered aid to circumvent regime ground sieges has not materialized.

Russian bombing attacks on Syrian residential neighborhoods in support of an Assad regime effort to encircle and besiege Aleppo are on the upswing. Washington's response to date is to shoot rhetorical blanks into the air, importuning a trio of bad actors to live up to their commitments.

Washington is asking that the signatories to the most recent statement of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and the Assad regime uphold their commitments to reduce violence and to facilitate humanitarian assistance. That statement was categorical about Assad regime impediments to humanitarian aid and the requirement—also memorialized in U.N. resolutions—that they be removed.

The administration's idea of “action” in the Syrian context is to insist, from the podium, that Moscow and Tehran in particular honor their commitments. It is a valid demand. Yet the commitments give every indication of being empty and worthless.

Slightly more than eight months have passed since Russia intervened militarily in Syria. The combination of Russian air assets and Iranian-assembled ground forces has immunized Bashar al-Assad from political transition.

It appears the Obama administration now grudgingly accepts that military facts do indeed influence diplomatic outcomes: It reportedly no longer expects Syrian political transition to take place on its watch. Rather, it hopes that a “cessation of hostilities” (CoH) can reduce violence and spur humanitarian aid during the six-plus months left to it.

Under most circumstances, one would think that abandoning one's ambitious objective for something more modest would make mission accomplishment easier. Yet even in the context of reduced violence and increased humanitarian assistance, all cards of any value are in Russian, Iranian and Assad regime hands.

These three are creating hard military facts—employing a strong dose of civilian terror—while the West plaintively insists that no military solution exists for Syria. In fact, the “no military solution” mantra is rhetorical cover for something Moscow, Tehran and Assad count on: The West, such as it is, will do nothing militarily—no matter how limited—to complicate the ability of the Assad regime and its enablers to commit civilian homicide on an industrial scale.

From the beginning of Syria's uprising, Bashar al-Assad and his foreign supporters have worked hard to give real substance to an utter lie: that the regime was opposed entirely by terrorists, mainly of the Al-Qaeda persuasion. Indeed, both the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) and the Nusra Front have aided Assad by crowding nationalist opponents to the regime—poorly supported by the West—off center stage.

Now the ubiquitous presence of the Nusra Front in northwestern Syria encourages Russia and the regime to pound civilian residential areas as they please, citing the ISSG as having exempted the Nusra Front from the CoH.

Gleefully, Moscow invites Washington to share information with it on the locations of Nusra Front personnel and, ideally, join in on the bombing of hospitals and other facilities supposedly protected under international law, all in the name of fighting the Nusra Front.

One hopes that, at a minimum, the United States is systematically cataloging evidence of war crimes by Russian armed forces and their civilian masters.

The United Nations reportedly hopes to reconvene regime and opposition delegations in Geneva on or about June 16. Herein lies the practical downside, for Moscow, of sustaining its brutal, civilian-centric campaign.

Russia wants open-ended, Potemkin peace talks to anesthetize the West and to keep alive its objective of reconciling Assad to Washington for the sake of an anti-ISIS united front: a development that would enable Moscow to proclaim its rescue of the “Syrian state” from American machinations.

But the opposition cannot play its assigned role in what passes for a Syrian peace process while its constituency is subjected to every indignity imaginable by Assad and his foreign champions.

A more practical approach for Russia to lure the United States into a collaborative relationship with Assad could be to drop the residential neighborhood bombing campaign, oblige its client to stop as well and concentrate entirely on the stated rationale for its September 30, 2015, intervention: ISIS.

Russia could work with the Syrian opposition to bring about cease-fires in all of non-ISIS Syria so that Iran's foreign fighters and what is left of the Syrian army can march, under Russian air cover, on Raqqa, the ISIS capital of Syria.

To date, the American military approach to ISIS in Syria has consisted of periodic air attacks and circumscribed ground operations by Kurdish-dominated irregulars—hardly the formula for decisive results.

What would the American-led anti-ISIS coalition do if Russia, Iran and the Assad regime were to shift their focus from collective punishment of Syrian civilians to fighting ISIS? Would coalition aircraft simply vanish from the skies over Syria?

Could Russian calls for joint air operations against the organization President Obama wishes to "degrade and destroy" be resisted? Would Washington have any option other than to facilitate, in effect, the restoration of Assad regime authority in eastern Syria, leaving that regime free to go door-to-door in its lethal hunt for civil society activists who have opposed both it and ISIS?

Notwithstanding reports of Syrian-army preparations for an assault on Raqqa, Bashar al-Assad's disinclination to fight ISIS may, in the end, spare Washington the cruel dilemma described above: a dilemma made possible by years of policy shortfalls. Russia's challenge, however, centers on perpetuating a peace process that simply cannot proceed under current circumstances.

Perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin feels the strain of being manipulated by Assad while at the same time needing him to personify his hoped-for defeat of the alleged American “democratization and regime change campaign.” Or perhaps he wants to preface the prayed-for Assad-Washington embrace by helping Assad first neutralize all non-ISIS armed groups, thereby putting the peace process in mortal danger.

If Assad's priorities are not, in fact, those of Moscow, Russia does not lack leverage. Putin can privately deliver the following message to his client: I will say nothing publicly, but from this day forward, unless you do things my way, you get nothing from us—no combat air support, no military resupply, no backing in the U.N. Security Council. Only when the U.N. special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, tells us that you are cooperating with the United Nations fully will our support resume.

If Moscow will not do that much, then the nonstop importuning of Russia to live up to its commitments should, as a matter of self-respect if nothing else, stop. Sadly, however, this stamping of feet and pointing of fingers about signed documents and broken promises may be all that a hollowed-out West can muster at this point.

That Assad is, in the end, Tehran's man perhaps still carries weight in Washington. That Turkey may actually absorb the emptying of Syria may still give hope and a touch of relaxation to what passes for leadership in Western Europe.

Yet while the West shoots policy blanks, Syrian civilians feel something else: high explosive and hot lead courtesy of their so-called president and his foreign enablers. For the West of the 21st century's second decade, "Never Again" seems to have no applicability to Syria, no matter the human and political costs.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.