Why Obama Should Just Let Putin Have the Mess in Syria

One way or another, the war in Syria will remain a hopeless mess -- best we leave it to Moscow.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MAY 10:  Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Kremlin May 10, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. Merkel is on a one-day visit to Russia. (Photo by Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MAY 10: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Kremlin May 10, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. Merkel is on a one-day visit to Russia. (Photo by Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images)

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Nor can Vladimir Putin broker a political solution in Syria. In fact, as a result of his recent attempts to play diplomatic power broker in the Middle East, he will lose credibility. That will only grow more apparent later this week when officials from Iran — like Russia, a major backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — meet with their American and Russian counterparts in Vienna to discuss a political resolution to the Syrian conflict. Russia has reportedly been pushing for Iran’s inclusion in these high-stakes talks.

But Putin is setting himself up for disappointment. That’s because there is no political solution to the Syria crisis: Russia’s purported aspiration to hold talks with the “full spectrum” of rebel groups in Syria will inevitably fail because that spectrum plainly includes hard-line Islamists and the Islamic State — contingents that neither Washington nor Moscow is prepared to deal with. In the absence of a political solution, recapturing areas held by Islamist rebels will necessarily involve a long, bitter fight to the death — a fight that Assad, Iranian proxies, and now the Russians are stuck with.

The idea that Putin’s decision to deploy several dozen aircraft to prop up Assad resembles some strategic masterstroke is a fantasy. Those in the Beltway crowd who say Washington should aggressively escalate to counter Moscow’s move in Syria are wrong. Drawing Russia into the Syrian swamp is, in fact, the best opportunity the Obama administration has had in months to weaken Putin.

Conversely, Putin’s Syria strategy isn’t tough to grasp. The location of Russian strikes in Syria in recent weeks suggests that he wants to help Assad and his Shiite militia proxies connect government-held areas in Homs to those in Aleppo by clearing Latakia, Hama, and Idlib provinces of non-Islamic State rebels. If successful, this campaign would eliminate most of the rebel groups in these areas, ranging from the sorry remnants of the CIA-equipped Free Syrian Army to al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, leaving the Islamic State and the Kurds as the only serious fighters left in northern Syria. Washington and its allies, by Putin’s calculation, would be forced to accept Assad as the only option to take on the Islamic State in the Sunni parts of northern and central Syria. Assad stays in power. Putin becomes the new regional power broker. And U.S. regional hegemony is upended.

Given that Putin actually has a political strategy, Western criticism of him for failing to drop more than a few token bombs on the Islamic State while directing his strikes at non-Islamic State rebels is faintly ridiculous. The United States, by contrast, has settled on the apolitical aim of “degrading” the Islamic State without explaining how its bombing campaign in Syria ends, politically. Who does the White House imagine will control territory cleared of the Islamic State, for example? We don’t know.

Rather than condemning Putin for acting in Russia’s self-interest, both the White House and its hawkish critics in Washington should instead focus on his plan’s glaring weakness: the political and fiscal credibility he will lose while trying to bolster Assad and broker an unattainable political solution. What lies ahead for those defending what’s left of the crumbling Syrian state is an open-ended counterinsurgency nightmare.

Those in Washington who want the White House to escalate in Syria to counter Putin must first understand that, as things currently stand, he can’t deliver a negotiated end to the war. There just isn’t one. Consider the facts on the ground. Leaving aside the Kurds, there are likely no moderate rebels left in Syria with whom to broker a political solution. If there were, Washington wouldn’t have abandoned its program to train a cadre of them after finding only a few dozen (who seemingly had no will to fight, anyway). Following that fiasco, the burden is on the Obama administration to prove that the “moderate rebels” are anything other than a fiction. Conversely, there is ample evidence that many of the non-Islamic State rebels who would have to be part of such a solution are in fact hard-line Islamists.

This is why the very idea of a political solution, whoever the broker, is largely a fantastic projection of our desire for an end to the Syrian civil war, rather than a project anchored in reality. There simply isn’t going to be a deal with hard-line Islamists, let alone the Islamic State, regardless of whether the counterparty is Assad, Russia, the West, regional powers, or some combination thereof. Can we seriously imagine al-Nusra Front, the major non-Islamic State rebel group, coming anywhere close to the negotiating table to discuss a “pluralistic Syria”? No. It’s a fantasy.

Rather, the endpoint in much of the Islamist rebel- and Islamic State-held areas is a bitter fight to the death. This is not the kind of fight with a decisive military endpoint. Once the ground is cleared, troops will need to stay in place to hold it and restore order. And if the Iraq War showed anything, holding ground against a follow-on insurgency is where the open-ended nightmare of daisy chain IEDs, unseen snipers, and sectarian bloodletting begins.

There should be no doubt that an insurgency would rise in the Sunni heartlands of Syria in territory recaptured from hard-line Islamist rebels or the Islamic State. The intense grievances that motivated rebellion against Assad won’t suddenly evaporate. Such an insurgency will last either until a political solution is imposed militarily, which could involve forcing Islamist rebel- or Islamic State-held areas back into the Syrian state, or partitioning the areas into autonomous political units. Or, if no such political solution arises, whoever overtly claims to control the ground will need to permanently garrison and subjugate the territory with militias — think Chechnya on steroids. Either way, this is a road to quagmire.

If Putin doubles down on his support for Assad, he will be drawn further into the swamp. When he fails to deliver a political solution, his play for influence in the Middle East will look ridiculous. But he’ll still be stuck with Assad, given the capital he has invested in his survival. Can Putin break free of this deadlock? No. He can’t realistically afford to escalate much further, given the state of the Russian economy and the still-vivid memories of the former Soviet Union’s experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The cost of the Russian campaign — somewhere between $2.3 million and $4 million a day, by one estimate — may not look like much now, but it will start to add up.

The bottom line is that Putin is stuck in Syria, as are the hard-liners in Tehran who are backing the Shiite militias on the ground. That’s not a bad thing if you want to see them weakened. Assad is a lead weight dragging Putin down, not a life raft that will keep Russian power afloat in the Middle East.

The Obama administration should view this as an opportunity to hand as much of the Syrian mess over to Putin as possible, rather than admonishing him for ramping up Russia’s involvement. Put differently, President Barack Obama could use this moment to devise a real political strategy, rather than oscillating between moralizing tirades against Putin’s support for what remains of the Syrian state and the apolitical, meaningless mission of degrading the Islamic State. U.S. strikes in Syria should only be tied to positively defined goals, such as counterterrorism to defend U.S. interests, stopping the Islamic State from resupplying operations to Iraq, or supporting Kurdish enclaves. Then, at least, we would start to understand who the Obama administration sees as having de facto control of ground cleared from the Islamic State or Islamist rebels, since that’s about as close to a political solution as we’re likely to see in Syria.

Photo Credit: Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images News


Emile Simpson is a former British Army officer and the author of War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics.