The silver lining in the disastrous refugee problem in Europe may be that it compels a more rigorous effort by the United Nations to end the fighting in Syria. Given the abject failure of U.S. policy in the conflict, at least in the short-term Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policy of supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government is the best possible option.
The key to a long-term settlement will be for world leaders to make clear to Assad that he will not be allowed to hang on to power indefinitely. An agreement ending the conflict could allow Assad to rule a transition government for a few years before retiring and stepping down to an elected successor. In the meantime, a concerted effort should be made by all involved to neutralize and hopefully defeat the Sunni-extremist Islamic State, which obviously poses the greatest threat to the region and the world.
Unfortunately, at the beginning of the conflict, the U.S. stated that Assad had to be removed from power. That stance has impeded efforts toward a peaceful resolution and thereby facilitated the rise of IS, which stands to be the greatest beneficiary of a vacuum of power should Assad be immediately removed from power.
U.S. policy to arm and train “moderate” factions within the Free Syrian Army to fight mostly against IS failed miserably. Last month the State Department abandoned the plan after efforts to recruit 5,400 fighters ended with only a few dozen, about a quarter of whom reportedly turned their weapons over to the al-Nusra Front, Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate. There is no reason to expect better results from the deployment of 50 U.S. Special Operations soldiers to Syria announced by President Barack Obama last week.
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The FSA is a broad conglomeration of localized groups and militias with extremely disparate outlooks, agendas and ideologies. Of the three camps vying for power in Syria (along with IS and Assad’s regime) it is by far the weakest and least unified, yet the U.S. seems tied to its coattails for some reason. A scenario in which al-Nusra and radical Sunni factions within the FSA align with IS against the Shia-dominated government of Assad is just as likely, if not more so, than a scenario in which the FSA allies with Assad against IS.
U.S. policy, in other words, opens the door for an extremist IS-led takeover of Syria, which is clearly less preferable than Assad’s regime for all its many undeniable faults. Assad is a dictatorial tyrant and very unsavory character, but he is at least a secularist, and in the current scenario of Middle Eastern politics that is more important than ever. The U.S., after all, has supported unsavory dictatorial tyrants in the past.
In addition, Putin clearly has his own agenda, but he has also correctly criticized US-led regime change for leaving chaos and instability in its wake, as in Iraq following the 2003 invasion and more recently Libya after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Russia definitely shares the long-term U.S. goal in Syria and Iraq of defeating IS, which has recruited many supporters from the North Caucasus and thus actually poses a much more direct, existential threat to Russia than to the U.S.
The U.S. and Russia are on the same page to some degree, but nonetheless seem right now to be drawing from very different playbooks. The failed U.S. strategy has been to support the FSA to fight IS with the intention of eventually, after their presumed defeat of IS, turning the FSA against Assad’s regime. The Russian approach has been to support Assad by attacking mostly radical Sunni factions within the FSA, intending to then focus on defeating IS, which is the more effective strategy.
The removal of Assad in lieu of a clear-cut, stable non-IS option to assume and hold power seems foolhardy indeed, yet that is precisely the end-game of the U.S. approach to date. A diplomatic solution leading to a transition government ruled by Assad is Syria’s best hope to defeat (or at least contain) IS with help from a U.N.-led coalition that includes Russia. Such a policy shift may also help facilitate a much-needed amelioration of tensions between the U.S. and Russia as well.
Rather than criticizing Russia’s intervention in Syria, the U.S. should be following Putin’s lead.
Dr. Jeff Jones is a history professor at UNC Greensboro specializing in Russian-Soviet history.