Peace negotiations reflect battlefield realities. This old truism has been consistently ignored by U.S. and U.N. officials pretending to hold out hope for a negotiated peace. John Kerry’s favorite refrain has been that there is “no military solution” to the Syrian conflict, but he hinted last week at the significance of military efforts by adding, “while battlefield dynamics can affect negotiating leverage, in the end there is no military solution to this conflict.”
A few hours after the U.N. announced the halt in negotiations, Kerry said that the Syrian government forces, enabled by Russian airstrikes “have clearly signaled the intention to seek a military solution rather than enable a political one.” Regardless of the preferred outcome of the international community, the regime and its patrons have committed the resources necessary to win in the field. It is likely that the Americans know this, and also know that the only path toward leverage is a credible threat of force they are reluctant to make or use.
The pageantry of Geneva has revealed two core realities. First, Russia and Iran’s military support of Assad has insulated the Syrian president from the need to concede anything, even adherence to international humanitarian law. Second, the United States’ failure to match Russia and Iran’s escalation has diminished the opposition’s leverage to the point where it can only beg for the enforcement of U.N. Security Council resolutions and the already binding obligations of international law – where even those demands are seen as obstructive under the current power balance.
The United States has all but completed its transition from opposition supporter to neutral party or mediator. The Geneva II negotiations of 2014 had a tripartite power engine that included the United States, Russia and the U.N.. The U.S. was a key player. The political structure of those talks required the Russians to serve as interlocutor for Assad, and the Americans for the opposition. The United States’ material and arms support for opposition rebels was in full swing, and it was hoped that better relations with Russia would allow the U.S. to make progress. Before those talks collapsed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman held a last tripartite meeting with U.N. mediator Lakdhar Brahimi to try to salvage them.
Since then, Russia has occupied significant portions of Ukraine, threatened the E.U., violated Turkish airspace and surpassed Iran in its game-changing military support for the Syrian government’s position on the ground. The result has been a severe decline in opposition momentum, and an international community that is utterly powerless to protect civilians.
As Russia participates in the Geneva talks, it pursues a military solution in the field, launching extremely aggressive campaigns that stretch to Syria’s northern- and southernmost regions. For instance, in the southern province of Daraa, Russian airstrikes empowered government ground troops to take back the critical transport town of Sheikh Miskeen, long contested or held by opposition forces.
Currently, in Aleppo, Russia is pushing the limits of its capacity, launching hundreds of strikes per day as pro-Assad forces encircle the city from the south and west. According to representatives of the Sultan Morad brigade, “hundreds” of strikes over the past few days have created thousands of new refugees from the city of Aleppo. This most aggressive phase of the Russian intervention in Syria is playing out alongside Geneva III, a process that supposedly embraces the premise of “no military solution.”
While the world is distracted with this perfunctory peace process, the Russian air campaign is allowing the Syrian government to consolidate and expand gains on the ground. Underneath Russia’s blustery intervention, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), their Hezbollah proxies and indentured mercenaries from the Shia world provide the backbone of the pro-Assad ground operation.
The dual leverage and dual influence of Russia and Iran on the international stage have dwarfed the United States, Europe and the United Nations. The 2016 Geneva meeting last week saw the U.S. commenting from the sidelines, urging “both sides to negotiate in good faith,” and scaling back support for opposition fighters. The United States applied severe pressure on the opposition to attend Geneva not by increasing their leverage but by decreasing their military support, thus revealing a deep gap in the commitment levels of the opposition’s sponsors, as opposed to those who support the government. Since the beginning of the Russian intervention, rebels have claimed that the supply of U.S.-provided TOW missiles has dwindled. Rebels have also claimed the CIA, which supplies and advises southern rebels, has forbidden them from launching any attacks that threaten the Syrian government north of Daraa.
Many speculate about the reasons for dwindling American support. Some suggest President Obama is seeking to let the opposition dry up and allow a clearer Assad versus ISIS narrative to emerge. Some blame the decreased support on a side commitment to Iran. Perhaps President Obama is admitting to the defeat of his stated “Assad must go” strategy. Regardless of the president’s strategic reasons, the status quo will ensure that any trips back to Geneva will offer more leverage in Assad’s favor. So where can the Obama administration find its political solution?
Even if the United States gives up on its support for the armed opposition once and for all, civilian protection must remain its number one priority in Syria. Achieving it will be more difficult than propping up rebel groups.
Assad remains by far the number one killer of civilians, and his collective punishment of entire cities is the primary cause of the refugee crisis. If the moderate opposition laid down their arms today, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS would still have a presence throughout most of the country.
One thing must remain clear in the eyes of the United States and the United Nations: The Syrian government’s civil war strategy is its counterterrorism strategy. Everyone acknowledges that after the government versus opposition struggle concludes, Syria will immediately have to transition to the fight against ISIS and al-Qaida. Russia and Iran will have no moderating effect on the counterterror strategy. Just look at the Chechen wars or the marauding of Iran-backed militias in Iraq. Crimes against humanity and sectarian persecution will lead to a surge in global support for ISIS and al-Qaida. The United States will still have to grapple with mass killing, mass starvation, mass torture, chemical weapons use and scorched earth tactics. Perhaps it will feel compelled to participate in them should the political narrative embrace a Russian and Iranian vision of global counterterrorism.
But we’re not quite there yet. The political and armed opposition are holding on by a thread, and the hopes for a conclusion that protects civilians are closing but not gone. The United States is faced with a choice to acknowledge that military means are required to protect civilians and to achieve the necessary political outcome in Syria, or to allow Assad to dominate the political settlement, diminish the norms of international law and pour gasoline on the fire of Sunni extremism.
On Thursday, Secretary Kerry tweeted: “Syrian regime & supporters must halt attacks of oppo-held areas & ensure humanitarian access. Look fwd to talks resuming later this month.” As has been true since 2011, the Obama administration has a list of demands for curtailing bad behavior, but lacks both the will or vision to enforce them.
The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.
Top image: Smoke rises over Saif al-Dawla district, in Aleppo, on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012. (AP Photo/ Manu Brabo)