In an op-ed column in the December 6 New York Times – “How the War Ends in Syria,” Peter Galbraith, a retired American diplomat writes of “an absolutely counterproductive idea favored by Washington’s foreign policy elites of both parties…for providing additional military support to the moderate Syrian opposition. Such aid cannot possibly now change the trajectory of the war, but will certainly get more people killed.” He goes on to say, ” The United States has an interest in a result that allows as many Syrians as possible to go home, that ensures the total defeat of the Islamic State and other extremist groups, and that safeguards the Syrian Kurds, who have been America’s principal ally against the Islamic State,” and that that the only way to achieve these goals is through “close collaboration with Russia, whose intervention enabled Mr. Assad to turn the tide of the war [because] fortunately, Russia shares many of America’s objectives, even if its Syrian ally does not.”
Ambassador Galbraith proposes that the United States and Russia “start by negotiating terms that would end the fighting between the regime and the moderate opposition. The terms might include an amnesty for the rebels, the right of Syrian refugees to return and equal access to reconstruction assistance. It could even include some promises of basic political freedoms, international monitoring and the removal of Syrian officials (not including Mr. Assad) responsible for the worst crimes.”
This cooperation between the U.S. and Russia is both necessary and acceptable to both sides, because “the Russians have considerable leverage with a Syrian government that wants Russian backing for mopping-up operations,” while, “The United States, with less leverage, will have to persuade the non-Islamist opposition that a negotiated surrender is better than total destruction.” The U.S. can also “work to ensure the diplomatic engagement of European allies to bring an end to hostilities, as well as their financial support for reconstruction in Syria.”
This all makes such sense it’s a wonder we didn’t try to do this four or five years ago, when it became clear that Syria’s version of the Arab Spring was not going to end in the overthrow of a dictator but in a bloody civil war of attrition, in which the Assad regime, backed by the Russians, held the better hand by far. Here is the I told you so: in January of 2013, as many of the world’s political and opinion leaders were calling for the West to arm the rebels, I published a blog post titled “Arming the Syrian Rebels Would Be a Terrible Mistake,” which suggested exactly this.
Though any negotiated settlement involving the Russians would likely leave Bashar al Assad or close associates in power, the alternative was much worse. As wrote then, “The possible replacement of Syria’s multi-religious character with a monolithic Sunni identity or, worse, the potential partition of the country into ethnic enclaves ruled by warlords ought to give pause to the most enthusiastic supporters of the rebel movement. Women especially may not relish giving up the substantial equality they have enjoyed under the Assads’ secularist government.”
In 2013 the Syrian opposition was adamant that no peace talks could take place as long as Assad remains in power, but as I wrote then,”This may not be the stumbling block it has been in the past, Russia having recently indicated that it is largely indifferent as to whether Assad stays or goes. The offer of a safe haven in Moscow for the Assad family and the ability to spirit out however many millions of dollars they may need to live in their accustomed style could do the trick, especially if the Russians threaten to stop supplying the regime if he doesn’t accept their offer and if the alternative is to end up in the dock of the International Criminal Court or to be gunned down by the side of the road like Muammar Qaddafi.”
Since then, a half million Syrians have died and more than 5 million have been internally displaced or have fled the country. The country has indeed been divided into ethnic enclaves ruled by warlords or messianic death cults. The Syrian National Coalition, designated by a joint Arab-Western conference in December 2012 as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” died long ago. The remaining rebels, far from imposing conditions for a peace settlement, are struggling to survive, pleading with the Assad regime to allow them safe conduct out of Aleppo, or have altogether abandoned the fight, hoping to melt back into the general population. Countless cultural and historic treasures have been destroyed.
So, yes, we should seek a deal with the Russians. And, while we’re at it, try to bring the Iranians to the table as well. This does not mean that Syria will be be restored to its previous state. That country no longer exists. And even such a deal is no guarantee of future peace. But what other option is there? The pity is that we didn’t seize the opportunity to do this four or five years ago, when there was still a chance to save Syria.