The tragedy of all this is that the posturing of both sides obstructs the chance to get a deal done on Syria.
There is common ground between Russia and the United States if, and only if, the United States is honest about its posture toward ISIS and other radical Muslims.
But as I have already written, if the United States is secretly supporting ISIS by doing as little as possible to counter ISIS’s growing power, then there is no common theme and no way to move forward.
ISIS, after all, along with their allies among radical Islamists, controls as many as 10 million people and a good part of Syrian and Iraqi territory. The spread of ISIS has implications far beyond Syria and Iraq: it threatens pro-American conservative countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, it could cause civil war in Lebanon, and it is likely to take over in Libya. When that happens, Tunisia will be next.
Israel, too, will be far worse off with an ISIS state on its border. Assad was, at least, reasonably reliable and predictable, although his alliance with Hezbollah is threatening to Israel and his relationship to Iran, that includes hiding nuclear weapons development and manufacturing centers, constitutes an existential threat for two reasons: it makes it possible for Iran to continue its weapons development away from nuclear inspectors and, even more importantly, it is a future base for putting nuclear weapons on Syrian soil, facing Israel. That is why any deal that is agreed must include the removal of both Iran and Hezbollah from Syria.
From any point of view it is far more important to liquidate ISIS than it is to push Assad out of power. If the Russians decided to force Assad out, the civil war in Syria would get worse, not better, and the slaughter of Alawites, Christians, Kurds and other minorities would escalate irretrievably into a mass slaughter and an even greater exodus than we have already. In Iraq the situation is not much different, although the Shia power centers in the south of the country are probably secure for now. ISIS is busy trying to tighten the knot on Baghdad.
For the United States our leaders must recognize that there are no effective “moderate” interlocutors that have any importance in the Syrian context. The abysmal failure of the Army and CIA “training” of moderate elements has only succeeded in making ISIS more effective and there are now only four or five “fighters” still around, if at all. It is not only the waste of money that is appalling: it is the universally bad judgment of the administration in thinking such a moderate alternative was available and realistic. To the chagrin of the Congress who were led to support the misadventure, it is now clear that there is no such solution now or in the future.
The principals of any deal on Syria must be the following: (1) agreement by the United States and Russia to destroy ISIS in Syria using airpower and troops; (2) removing Hezbollah and Iran from Syria; (3) creating a framework for retaining the Syrian state but with a cantonal system based on ethnicity and with semi-independent cantonal leaders elected freely; (5) after ISIS and its allies are defeated, and with the return of peace, creation of a new central government where the cantons select the President of the country based on a formula where the minorities are guaranteed top positions in the new government.
In the past few years the US relationship with Russia has deteriorated and has become a macho game between Putin on the one hand and Obama on the other. The problem is that Putin has been able to exploit NATO weak spots to embarrass both Obama and the Europeans. Ukraine is a prime example.
The Obama administration uses a lot of words, most of which signify their inability to fashion any response to the Russians. But in Syria perhaps there is a glint of hope.
The glint is based on the fact that the Russians would not be after a deal with the United States unless they realized that the game is nearly up with Assad. ISIS is winning; the Russians are pumping in some new equipment and a few troops to help train the Syrians and provided better intelligence gathering, but these steps won’t make a great difference on the ground.
That’s why Putin wants to talk. He understands that radical Islam is perhaps even more of a threat to Russia and Russian interests than it is to the United States: which is why the two sides need to talk and bargain.
The US should want to get rid of ISIS, the sooner the better. The US should also want to find a modus vivendi with the Russians on counter-terrorism.
Any deal with the Russians has to involve military cooperation and strong coordination of effort. It also will require a host of new tactics to destroy ISIS. The Russians and their client will need to change their approach on how to drive ISIS out of urban strongholds without gross violations of human rights and the slaughter of civilians. Arriving at such a solution will not be easy: but if the parties are in agreement on the fundamentals it can be achieved.
An open question is whether the American people, and for that matter the Russian people, would accept the implementation of a solution that starts with the military defeat of ISIS. Under any circumstance military action won’t be pretty or easy or free of casualties.
Washington may opt to stay out altogether. That would be consistent with the dissipation of American power and influence in the Middle East. For a while it will save American lives but in the end America, as the Great Satan, will pay the price.
- This Commentary was first published at Technology Security, September 18, 2015