Needed: A new Syria strategy

The following editorial appeared in The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday, Sept. 29:

At the opening of the U.N. General Assembly session Monday, President Barack Obama delivered a forceful rebuttal to the idea that the U.S. should accept Syrian President Bashar Assad as a partner in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. “In accordance with this logic,” he told the world leaders gathered in New York, “we should support tyrants like Bashar al-Assad who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent civilians because the alternative is surely worse.” As a statement of principle, the president was absolutely right: Even if the U.S. were to enter into a temporary marriage of convenience with the Assad regime to defeat Islamic State, what assurances, if any, would it have afterward that the Syrian dictator would actually step down?

Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking an hour after Obama, offered his own answer to that question, which essentially boiled down to: “Trust me.” Putin offered a ringing endorsement of Assad as an island of stability in a troubled region and insisted Russian help was needed to fight the Islamic State extremists threatening the region. He called it “an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face.” But he gave no indication that once Islamic State was defeated Russia would use its influence to hasten Assad’s exit.

Propping up bloody dictators because they appear to be the lesser of two evils has never been a winning strategy for the U.S. — see Vietnam, Iran and Iraq’sSaddam Hussein, whom the U.S. supported in his eight-year war with Tehran during the 1980s — and it’s equally unlikely to work in Syria. Assad’s crimes against humanity are egregious and well-documented. Despite the savagery of Islamic State, most of the quarter million Syrians who have died in the country’s four-year civil war were killed by their own government with arms supplied by Russia and Iran. Another 4 million have been driven into exile, forcing the countries of the European Union to cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking asylum. It’s inconceivable that those migrants can be persuaded to return to Syria as long as Assad remains in power.

That is why Obama was also right to pointedly criticize Assad’s main backers, Russia and Iran, for prolonging the conflict in Syria by providing military aid and diplomatic cover to the regime. He reminded his audience how the conflict began as peaceful protests that the Assad government responded to with arrests, beatings, torture and finally wholesale massacres of civilians using poison gas and barrel bombs. Syria’s descent into chaos, the president said, showed that “dangerous currents risk pulling us back into a darker, more disordered world” and the lawlessness exemplified by Russia’s takeover of Crimea and its support for rebel militias in Ukraine.

Obama repeated his view that no resolution to the conflict was possible as long as Assad remains in power and that a negotiated settlement is the only way to end the war. But given Putin’s adamant defense of his ally — and his summary dismissal of the U.S.’ concerns — it’s hard to imagine Washington and Moscow ever seeing eye to eye on how to proceed from here. Moreover, Putin appears to have seized the initiative over the weekend when the Iraqi government announced it would share intelligence data on Islamic State with Russia, Syria and Iran. The revelation of a tacit alliance among those four nations, led by Russia, appears to have taken U.S. officials by surprise.

After yesterday’s speeches, it’s clear the U.S. is going to have to re-evaluate its strategy in Syria and that Russia and Iran are unlikely to cooperate in any plan that might threaten Assad’s hold on power no matter what happens in the war against Islamic State. Putin may even see an advantage to deliberately prolonging that war if the exodus of refugees continues to create divisions among the EU countries that weaken the NATO military alliance. Obama is right to be wary of entangling the U.S. in another protracted Mideast conflict. But neither can the U.S. afford to allow Russia, Iran and their proxies to dominate events in the region. If the president is serious about ensuring Assad’s departure from the scene, it’s going to take more than speeches at the U.N. to make that happen.


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