It is very easy to poke holes in Putin’s Syria gambit. If he really wanted peace, argues Tuesday’s NYT editorial, he would have nudged his ally Bashar al-Asad to negotiate long before this late moment. Russia analysts seem to agree that Putin’s policy has as much to do with internal Russian politics, shoring up Russian relevance to global politics and projecting strength as it does with any goals in Syria. And the targets suggest that ISIS is only one of the groups in Russian crosshairs, although the question of whether they targeted an al Qaeda affiliate should make us wonder who we support. It does seem that their goal is to win the war for the current Syrian regime that has unquestionably committed gross, widespread and brutal abuses against its own population. The immediate impact might be a shift in dynamics that, if seized upon, could provide an opening for all the key players to negotiate, but the long-term prospects conjure up the word ‘quagmire.’
For the pundits and critics of the Russians, these arguments are easy to produce, because they draw on glaring facts. But Putin’s critique of the policies of the US and its allies is just as valid. We have also played to win a war rather than negotiate a peace, starting with the unbendable line that Asad must go, a factor that may have had a significant influence limiting Asad’s supporters from being able to back negotiations, even if they had wanted to. We have played the same game for years—seeking military defeat—but have done it with less material commitment than the Russians.
The turn from nonviolent protest to war was enabled by rapid infusion of weaponry to opposition groups (see here, here and here); despite the fact that non-violent change has a stronger proven record. Asad’s crackdown against protesters was overwhelming, but that does not translate into carte blanche for regime change by military force. It is a fallacy to limit civilian protection to toppling governments. The arming of ‘vetted’ rebels has proven to be a ludicrous policy—arms ‘flow’ by nature, particularly in a complex war like this. What is more, you cannot blame rebels for seeking to build what we might term unsavory alliances (also here), with groups that are affiliated with al Qaeda and hardcore Islamists; they are fighting for their lives and would be stupid to use our criteria for picking favorites. So ‘we’ end up now with radical Islamist allies and yet think the vetted insurgents can still pull off a victory. What is more, this scenario envisions winning two wars against all odds: a defeat of Asad and a conflict to consolidate a post-Asad Syria. Should the first war be won, a distant prospect, the second war has a serious chance of looking like the 12 years of violence in post-Hussein Iraq or the mess of Libya rather than anything verging on a pluralistic, western-leaning, minority protecting democracy.
Critics of either U.S. or Russian policy would prefer the rhetorical simplicity of merely pointing out flaws in the other’s position. What is really the problem is that both want war. If stability is the desired outcome, then Putin’s pro-government position makes more sense and he appears to be applying levels of force to match his ambition. It’s as if he looked at U.S. policy and said, if war is your answer, then you have to do it for real. If a client state is the desired outcome, Putin’s policy is also the more coherent one. Let’s not play coy, it’s an endorsement of violence that western governments have found palatable if the winner is the right regime: think of the Sri Lankan government’s defeat of the Tamil Tigers, Al Sisi’s brutal crackdown and return to military rule in Egypt–both of which garnered little critique from western allies. Supporting brutal governments is more likely to succeed than the farcical pretense that limited support to the ‘good’ rebels can turn the tide.
In any case, the most likely outcome of all these pro-war positions is continued conflict.
If protection of civilian lives and carving a greater space for democratic practice is the desired outcome, then it’s time to seize the moment and negotiate, playing hardball for a political solution that provides institutional guarantees for democratizing processes. Democracy after all isn’t a change in the guard; it’s a much longer, more difficult change in the game. It might still be possible to help further this goal—but it won’t be achieved in any short-term scenario and it won’t be a battlefield outcome. What this might look like requires serious Syria expertise: here are two starting points: Julien Barnes-Dacey and Hugh Roberts. We also have a third foreign policy expert—Secretary of State John Kerry–who hinted this was the way to go, but backed down when pro-Saudi camps feared this meant a re-alignment of power in the Middle East. It may be time to revisit this idea and quickly.