They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. That’s certainly the case with the photo of beaming Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem clasping hands with grinning Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week in Moscow — as though in a victory salute.
The two men’s smiles reflect how well Moscow and Damascus (along with Tehran) have outflanked the United States and Syrian rebels before peace talks on Syria that are scheduled to start Wednesday. Those talks, in Switzerland, are at the core of the U.S. "strategy" to unseat the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But, as Muallem and Lavrov well know, the American policy has failed badly.
It’s past time for the White House to reassess a Syria strategy that ignores the facts on the ground.
The original goal of the peace talks, known as Geneva II, was for regime and opposition to agree on a transitional government that would eventually be followed by elections. That interim government was supposed to be approved by both sides, which guaranteed the exit of Assad, because the Syrian opposition would never accept his having any political role.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry insisted last week these terms were still the basis of peace talks. But Russia and Syria have made clear they disagree with Kerry, and he has little leverage to change their minds.
In a flamboyant news conference two weeks ago, Assad insisted he intended to stay in power. Without any shame, the Syrian leader claimed the conflict pitted patriots against terrorists, citizens against killers. No mention of the regime’s slaughter of peaceful protesters who sought reform of a corrupt 40-year family dictatorship, or of its massive bombing, gassing, and starving of civilians.
"This fits in with the regime trying to shift the narrative to a focus on fighting terrorism," Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Mideast Center said on a conference call from Beirut. Assad is cleverly playing on Western fears of al-Qaida, which has gained traction in parts of Syria. Of course, Assad never mentioned his regime’s role in fostering the return of al-Qaida (many of whose local operatives have long-standing ties to Syrian intelligence). What better way to convince Western nations a tough dictator is needed than to ballyhoo the jihadi threat?
The Syrian leader’s cynicism goes further. He knows that Washington, fearing Geneva II could fail, has been hoping the meeting might at least produce a breakthrough on delivering humanitarian aid. As though to demonstrate generosity, Muallem gave Lavrov a supposed plan Friday for a ceasefire in besieged Aleppo, along with prisoner exchanges.
But the regime has repeatedly used brief ceasefires and limited deliveries of food aid as a wedge to arrest rebels and force opposition-held areas to surrender. "If they move into local ceasefires, each time the regime will gain," says Sayigh. "In six months, the regime will be in a stronger place."
So where does this leave the Geneva II talks? Nowhere — unless Washington revises a strategy that keeps Assad in power.
First, the administration should relinquish its long-held illusion that rational argument will persuade Russia to ease Assad out. The Syrian regime and its allies respect strength, which Washington has failed to project.
The administration’s refusal to arm non-jihadi rebels has led many of their fighters to migrate to Islamist battalions. President Barack Obama’s decision not to strike at Assad’s military assets after Assad used chemical weapons convinced Syrians that Washington wants the dictator to retain power — and discouraged high-level doubters in the Syrian military from defecting.
The delivery of nonlethal aid to rebels, now suspended, achieved little, and its resumption would have scant impact. If the administration wants Assad gone, it must rethink its refusal to help arm more moderate rebel fighters, especially groups willing to fight al-Qaida as well as Assad (and it isn’t sufficient to outsource this task to the Saudis).
When it comes to seeking a humanitarian breakthrough from Geneva II, U.S. efforts also need to be more strategic.
Washington should be insisting that Assad permit humanitarian aid to openly cross the Turkish border to rebel areas where civilians are in dire need. Or else U.S. officials should publicly demand that the United Nations drop its unconscionable policy of channeling most food and medical aid via Damascus, which ensures it doesn’t reach the most needy in areas controlled by the opposition.
Increased humanitarian aid should be used to strengthen civilian councils that are trying to govern in rebel-held areas. Any local cease-fires should be monitored by international observers — risky, true, but crucial to ensure those cease-fires aren’t used by the regime to facilitate more war crimes.
It will become obvious at Geneva whether the administration is considering upping its game, thus prodding Moscow to rethink its unlimited support for Assad. If not, Muallem and Lavrov have very good reason to smile.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
—McClatchy Tribune Services