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How Is It a Good Thing for Moderates to Be Losing in Syria?

How Is It a Good Thing for Moderates to Be Losing in Syria?

I have a lot of time for Tony Blinken, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security advisor. I consider him a friend, and back in the day I found him to be one of those consistent Bush critics who, away from the campaign microphone, could put partisanship aside and make insightful critiques and suggestions. I was not always persuaded — his heroic efforts to explain then-Senator Joe Biden’s proposal to divide up Iraq come to mind — but I always came away from our conversations better informed and with a deeper understanding of the limits of our own policy and the best alternatives. 

That is why I am puzzled by this report of his comments at FP‘s Dec. 11 Transformational Trends shindig. (It is possible that the report loses the nuance of his original comments, but heck, I also have a lot of time for the report’s author, Elias Groll, since he could edit my blog posts into nonsense if I picked a fight with him.)

Did Tony really say that the rise of the extremists and the concurrent decline of the moderates among the Syrian rebels was a good thing because it would hasten the end of the conflict by bringing U.S. and Russian positions closer together? He is right that the U.S. and Russian positions have converged, and he may be right that this will hasten the end of one phase of the conflict — but what that would lead to is hardly a good thing, at least not as I would define a good thing.

A good definition of a good thing would be the lofty goals for Syria that Obama himself articulated back in 2011 when the crisis began: a peaceful, democratic, pluralistic, post-Assad Syria. We are far from that and getting further with the rise of the extremists.

The U.S. and Russian positions have converged because the United States has moved closer to the Russian position. Just today, the United States moved a bit closer still to Russia, suspending even nonlethal aid to the moderate factions. So far as I can see, the Russian position hasn’t moved much at all.

Blinken appears to be arguing that Russian fears of the growing extremist threat in Syria will hasten the day when Russia decides to dump President Bashar al-Assad. He is privy to the intelligence and private diplomacy that might support such a conjecture, but from the outside it looks more likely that the way this phase of the conflict ends more quickly is with Assad winning — outright or with a fig leaf of a political deal forced upon the much weaker moderate rebel factions. Given how far the United States has moved toward Russia, would it not seem more plausible that Russia would double down on Assad as the only game in town?

It is far from clear whether that would do much to ameliorate the unfolding humanitarian tragedy. It is quite clear that this would be a failure, according to the criteria Obama set in 2011.

I am sure that Blinken would have a thoughtful response to this line of critique. Maybe he already gave it. If not, I hope he does.