By Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Correspondent for In Homeland Security
Russia and Iran have recently stated that they would basically make a deal with the West in regards to Syria, if they can keep power channels and influence in the new government. This proposal has been on and off for years. Russia and Iran have both hinted that they are not completely behind a Bashar al Assad government and would be open for alternatives. They have also stated that they are supportive of his regime, giving mixed signals. Just several months ago, both offered subtle hints into possible alternatives of a future Syria without perhaps without Assad but without gaining traction and cooperation from the U.S.; particularly at the opening of the UN General Assembly last week, they seem to have overnight switched back with Russia launching airstrikes and stepping up its military activities there against what it claims as a limited air campaign in counterterrorism operations.
Former Finnish president, who is also a Noble Prize Peace Prize Winner of 2008, Martti Ahtisaari, said that the West failed to accept a Russian offer in 2012 for President Assad to step down as part of peace agreement. Mr. Ahtisaari, who was involved in back-channel talks with the five permanent UN Security Council members, claims that Russia indeed laid out a three-point plan where President Assad would step down at some point after the cease-fire, according to The Guardian. He stated that the U.S., France and Great Britain were so convinced that President Assad was about to fall so they rejected the proposal. The conditions then, as now, are the constraints of impassioned rebel fighters and states that reject all of these proposals because they do not punish the regime. The West is held hostage by the more extreme players such as the Syrian Opposition and the Sunni states that refuse compromise at all costs.
Washington appears to either belittle these deals, remarks and hints at regime change as insincere efforts for greater cooperation or dismisses them entirely over a drive for a greater share of power in Syria than previously held. In many ways, the original deal is still on the table. But it might not be for long, if Russia and Iran can in fact do what the U.S. coalition could not and defeat ISIS for the Assad regime.
Washington and Moscow are at odds with each other on-the whole; however, Moscow does continually extend a hand in cooperation where it would produce a more stable advantage for itself and be in the interest of the other player of outreach. In other words, Moscow is often willing to throw a diplomatic bone to Western countries so long as it does not lose ground. At no time has this been insincere, but at every time, the West has grumbled over a compromise in which Russia, a bellicose actor, would be given anything at all.
Russia and Iran need help in defeating ISIS and holding power in Syria. They have all but directly asked Washington and its allies for help publicly already. While this does not seem advantageous to Washington, a more stable Syria, the limited sharing of intelligence on ISIS and counterterrorism and the political refugees must become a priority not only for Europe, for human rights but also for the U.S. Regime change is also possible, even if it is not totally satisfactory. And if the West can get into Syrian affairs more politically than in the past, it has to take the offers. So why hasn’t it?
Emotions versus strategy: Washington and company seem bent on trying to punish Russia rather than resolve the crises. Russia stole Crimea and parts of Ukraine, threatened Europe and provoked the U.S. In the case of Syria, the lack of logic and emotional reaction extends also to Iranian belligerence in the region seen in: Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Sure, these two players are culprits of stirring the war and propping a brutal dictator in Syria, but when has Washington had clean hands with this in its foreign policy: it still backs corrupt, illiberal and brutal regimes for wider regional stability, such as Saudi Arabia. There is no more liberal state in Iran and Saudi Arabia, they are both violators of every liberal democratic principle Americans believe in.
It would be more advantageous for the U.S. to consider what exactly it wants in the Middle East before gut-reaction style diplomacy. If the U.S. can use Russia and Iran to do the hard work in removing ISIS, then they should; but, it should be based on the conditions of the West gaining a wider influence in the new leadership of the new Syrian government at the removal of Assad. Trying to punish Assad for war crimes is perhaps a step to far at this point. It might be more expedient to give him and family a safe pass to Iran or Russia and focus on ending the war and rebuilding the state.
It may might still be the time that President Bashar al Assad is the only one that really wants to remain in power; that his allies are fed up with him. With the comments from Moscow and Tehran, it certainly appears that he is losing confidence or that those two nations believe they could do better without him; perhaps by obtaining greater U.S. and coalition support. The other option is to bypass him directly, which is what the Russians appear to be doing, and attempt to take care of the problem themselves.
The groups holding back diplomatic progress have been the exiled leaders of the Syria Opposition, Europe and the Arab and Sunni coalition states. These actors want Russia and Iran out of Syria, period. The U.S. has been literally stumbling into the web of conflicting interests and offering no great diplomatic outs while seeing the entire affair as a counterterrorism and humanitarian operation rather than a larger political and diplomatic epidemic.
Russia has given a soft cloaked warning for coalition forces to stop bombing targets in Syria, along with its main message and intent to begging its own airstrikes. Russia has effectively said, ‘We’ll take it from here. We’ll clean up the ISIS mess that you helped to create by focusing too much on Assad.’
The U.S. gave Russia a warning not to target any non-al Qaeda and ISIS fighters; having a vested interest with coalition partners in other rebel actors that may or may not be targeting Assad and ISIS. The U.S. also responded by saying that it will continue its operations.
In the hopeful waiting for diplomatic miracles presented by foreign actors, in a den of civil war and starkly opposing national objectives and creeds, the increasing Russian military element adds a strategic opportunity for the U.S. to work with Europe and the UN in holding Russia accountable. This can be done if Washington can get the coalition to stand down and let Russia and Iran take all of the responsibility for the war against ISIS. At the same time, the U.S. and coalition should have a UN mandate, or at least a resolution, that permits the use of humanitarian aid and holds all Russian, Syrian and Iranian actions accountable.
While the above sounds like a retreat, it is actually a better repositioning politically. America and Europe become legitimized and Russian actions become even more scrutinized. Russia and Iran spend all time and money stabilizing Syria and redirecting all hostilities of international jihadists against the U.S. and Europe and towards Moscow and Tehran. The U.S. gives aid in coordination to Moscow only if it complies with UN principles, helps with the refugee resettlement in its own territories, sets up an independent international peace-keeping force, etc. There are many positive paths in stepping back militarily as Russia enters, but only if America concentrates all efforts on refugees and political nature of the war and can bring its allies back into the diplomacy.
The rest of the coalition, including the Arab states and Turkey will immediately feel cheated by a withdrawal of American actions, but America will not withdrawal, it will pinpoint and act opportunely as secondary to the civil war’s resolution and the dismantling of ISIS there. Washington would have to assure its allies, who have long since lost faith in them, to also stand down. Turkey, who just reluctantly entered the war against ISIS, is facing an internal crisis already consumed by a rekindled war with the Kurdish militants. The Saudi Arabian government says it is considering strikes against the Assad regime, after Russia’s airstrikes commenced today.
The Arab states also have a civil war on or close to their borders in Yemen that they must first fix as primary. Syria has become shadowed as a drawn-out no-win proxy war. Russia’s entry sure complicates things. It might be possible for them to get something if Assad is removed and the West moves into a power-share of influence agreement with Moscow and Tehran there. That is and continues to be the holdup and the failure to convince coalition allies as well as to accept earlier diplomatic opportunities harms all interests.