If pigs had wings, perhaps they could fly. And if the US had some leverage, perhaps all the talk about a negotiated end to the Syrian crisis might amount to something.
But even if the US could develop some negotiating leverage at this late date in Syria’s ongoing tragedy, there is virtually no possibility of realizing the fantasy that President Obama outlined in his press conference appearance on Tuesday with British Prime Minister David Cameron:
“If, in fact, we can broker a peaceful political transition that leads to Assad’s departure but a state in Syria that is still intact; that accommodates the interests of all the ethnic groups, all the religious groups inside of Syria; and that ends the bloodshed, stabilizes the situation – that .. will be good for everybody. And we’re going to be very persistent in trying to make that happen. . . It’s going to be challenging, but it’s worth the effort.”
“Challenging” hardly begins to describe the near-impossibility of achieving “a state in Syria that is still [my emphasis] intact,” particularly with Tuesday’s reported claim that the death toll in Syria is likely to be as high as 120,000 (including 41,000 confirmed killed from the Alawite sect of President Bashar al-Assad).
Prime Minister Cameron, standing alongside Obama, claimed that “there is a common interest” with the Russians that “at the end of this there is a stable, democratic Syria.” But Russian President Putin has expressed no interest in a “democratic Syria.” In a press conference with Cameron in Moscow last Friday, Putin outlined a much more limited area of agreement: “We both want to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.” For the Russians, that is obviously best achieved by a victory for the Assad regime, and the idea that Putin would welcome a “democratic” outcome in Syria is laughable.
Nor is it much more likely that the Russians will support “Assad’s departure.” They’ve made it clear that they have no interest in that outcome, including most recently in their lobbying effort against a UN General Assembly Resolution that condemned the Assad regime’s “gross violations” of human rights. Although the resolution passed yesterday by a vote of 107 to 12 with 59 abstentions, Russia and other opponents succeeded in reducing the number of “yes” votes by 20% from the 133 votes for last year’s similar resolution.
That same resolution also called on all parties “to rapidly implement the roadmap for a Syrian political transition” adopted at last year’s Geneva meeting. Neither Obama nor Secretary of State Kerry has offered any explanation of why another meeting this year should produce any better result than last year’s. Particularly not when the Western powers have done nothing serious in the past twelve months to strengthen moderate forces in the opposition.
That inaction is one of the major reasons why, as the New York Times recently reported, the armed opposition fighting the regime are increasingly radicalized, “leaving few groups that both share the political vision of the United States and have the military might to push it forward.” As one rebel commander told the Times (speaking anonymously for fear of retaliation), “most of [the radical Nusra group’s] fighters joined the group for the weapons, not the ideology.”
Yet, while Western leaders talk about organizing another meeting, the Assad regime is gaining ground, thanks to Russian and Iranian arms, Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, and newly organized Alawite militias. Those Syrians who do share the president’s hope for a “Syria that is still intact; that accommodates the interests of all the ethnic groups, all the religious groups inside of Syria; and that ends the bloodshed” are receiving no serious Western support. In this position of weakness, they may find it impossible even to turn up at a June conference, thereby handing a further victory to the Assad regime.
And so, the country continues to be torn apart by the struggle between Assad’s brutal tyranny and an opposition that is increasingly dominated by perhaps equally brutal and tyrannical Islamist extremists. And the bodies continue to pile up.
Perhaps President Obama really believes that the proposed conference can produce a good outcome. More likely, he simply sees it as a way to delay for a few more months the need to make any hard decisions. By that time, US options will have narrowed even further. In either case, the president’s words are not seen as something to be taken seriously.
People may not like the positions that Russia takes, but they will think several times before opposing them. That fact has repercussions not in only Syria and the broader Middle East but even in places as far away as Azerbaijan and Georgia and the Baltic states.
An end to the slaughter in Syria is greatly to be desired. But unless the US and its allies can gain some negotiating leverage by giving serious backing to moderate forces in the opposition – something which is becoming nearly impossible the longer the US delays – even an imperfect peace will remain out of reach.