Trump’s Message Should be that if Russia Wants to Move Toward a Political Solution in Syria, the US Will be a Partner
by Dennis Ross*
Once again, Bashar al Assad has violated international law. Once again, he has gassed his own people. Once again, he commits war crimes without the hint of conscience or regret. And once again, he denies it—even though his is the only Syrian party to this conflict that has an air force and can drop chemical weapons and even though the US has now confirmed that only the Syrian air force was carrying out bombing raids in this part of Idlib province. Of course, these are the very weapons he claimed had all been destroyed or shipped out for destruction in accord with the US-Russian agreement in 2013. At the time, Assad claimed to have disclosed completely the information about all of Syria’s stockpiles and precursors of chemical weapons. And, yet once again, he lied.
Given his track record, there is no way to believe anything he says or commits to doing. Unlike in 2013, when President Obama chose not to act without gaining congressional authorization, President Donald Trump ordered a punishing military strike on the air base from which the Syrian regime ordered the attack. This punitive strike was more about making it clear that chemical weapons cannot be used with impunity than it was to signal a change in our policy toward the war in Syria. That said, the administration’s language about Bashar al Assad has changed. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has gone from saying that Assad’s future was “up to the Syrian people” to declaring that “it would seem there would be no role for him [Assad] to govern the Syrian people.”
It is too soon to know what this will mean for the administration’s policy which on Syria is still being formulated. That policy must take into account both Russian and Iranian approaches and actions. Both, once again defended Assad, demonstrating that there is apparently nothing this regime can do that would lead them to distance themselves from it. And, that gives Assad a license to continue to attack any target—though perhaps now he will no longer use chemical weapons to do so. That the Iranians might adopt this position is not surprising; after all, Assad has long been compliant to their wishes; in truth, he is at this point a wholly owned subsidiary of the Islamic Republic.
But Russia’s defense is more surprising because it comes with a cost. The Russians do not want chemical weapons (CW) to be treated like any other weapon—and yet had the Trump administration not responded, the Russian protection of Assad in the UN Security Council would have meant he could use chemical weapons with impunity. And, the message to every other leader in a conflict situation would be that it is okay to use CW to change the balance of power and gain the advantage. It is hard to see how that can serve Russian interests. It is also hard to see how the Russians gain from showing that any agreement with them has little or no value. Assad has unmistakably flaunted the agreement the Russians made with the US in 2013, meaning either he lied to them about coming clean on all his CW materials and precursors, or they lied to the US. Either way, the Russians don’t look very good. If nothing else, we see once again, that Russia will not walk away from Assad and cooperation with Russia in Syria has little point at least in the present circumstances. By the same token, had the Russians been prepared to condemn the Assad regime’s use of CW and not protect it in the UN Security Council, there would have been a strong argument to adopt a new approach toward the Russians.
To be sure, there could still be a moment for quiet diplomacy with the Russians now. Aside from quietly telling the Russians not to escalate, the message from President Trump to Putin should be there is an insurgency against Assad and it is not going away—he has killed too many people and the desire for revenge is not going to abate. We prefer to see the killing stop, and we are willing to work to help end the fighting and create a political process based on UN Security Council resolution 2254—which called for a cessation of hostilities, an end to sieges, unencumbered access for humanitarian assistance, and an 18 month period for a political transition. Russia supported this resolution but did nothing as Assad consistently violated every part of it. For our part, the message could be that we will act to ensure that those who can influence opposition forces—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar—live up to the resolution now—provided there is no longer a one-way street in which we act to affect the opposition, but Russia gives Assad a free hand. So, if Russia wants to find a way to limit and contain the conflict—and potentially move toward a political outcome, the US will be a partner. If not, the price will go up for Russia.
Such a message from the United States is likely to have more credibility today. The inability to back our messages with any coercive element during the Obama administration denied it any leverage with the Russians. Now, we may have it. That, of course, may not move President Putin. Maybe he has become as wedded to Assad as the Iranians. Maybe the symbol of Russian power in the Middle East is now more intimately tied to Assad’s presence. Maybe Putin feels the need to show that the US use of force is not decisive. If so, the Russians will back Assad intensifying his use of barrel bombs and doing more to intimidate the opposition and the population in the area it continues to control.
But the problem for the Russians won’t disappear, and the costs of backing Assad will go up as he lacks the manpower to take back and hold areas. As those costs go up, Putin may begin to look for a way out. In the meantime, the administration’s strategy toward Syria cannot be focused on only ISIS. It probably understands that now. Indeed, Assad’s actions remind us that so long as he remains in power he will be a powerful recruiting tool for every radical Sunni Islamist. With that in mind, the administration could take a longer view toward the Syrian conflict. It could decide that while it is pointless to try to replace Assad so long as he has the backing of Russian and Iran, it must now develop a strategy of producing safe areas in Syria as part of a strategy for containing this war. The safe areas would be off limits to attacks from Assad—and should he violate these areas both the Russians and Iranians would know that it would trigger punitive US retaliation. The safe areas would provide a place for refugees and lead to the de facto partition of the state. Ultimately, if Putin won’t act now to contain the conflict, the reality of partition is likely to create for him a pretext for ending the conflict and creating a more stable situation at a manageable cost.
For the Trump administration, safe areas and de facto partition could not only contain the conflict but also serve its interest in shaping the post-ISIS environment in Raqqa. Assad, Iran, and the Shia militias can’t be there if a non-sectarian, inclusive reality is to emerge. Governance, reconstruction, and security might be possible in such an environment. Syria certainly is the new problem from hell. But the readiness of the Trump administration to exert leverage and to recognize that it must have an approach that deals with ISIS and the war with Assad could provide a pathway to ameliorating this terrible conflict.
*American Middle East envoy Dennis Ross has served in the Administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, and is counselor and Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.