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Splits Inside the White House about Syria while the Road Forward is Clear to All

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said Friday April 22, “The movement of any additional Russian military support into Syria would be inconsistent with our shared objective of getting a political process moving”. Russia has repositioned artillery near the city of Aleppo, several U.S. officials told Reuters. Despite withdrawing some fixed-wing aircrafts in March, Russia has also bolstered its forces in Syria with advanced helicopter gunships, and renewed airstrikes against moderate opposition groups, said U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity”, Reuters reported the same day. The report describes as well the deepening splits in the administration over Putin’s intentions in Syria.

But splits about what exactly? Isn’t it obvious that President Putin positioned himself from the start in a win-win spot? Why would any official in the White House, if he was in Putin’s shoe, be energized to find a political way out if both military options are more attractive than the proposed solutions? Why would he grant Washington’s illusions a free lunch? If he doesn’t, he will save his dime, and still gets what he wants. In other words, Assad is making progress on the ground, the Iranians conditioned their current relations with Moscow on Putin’s support to the Syrian dictator and Russia’s presence in Syria is “secured” so long as Assad is in power. Furthermore, if the ceasefire remains respected, the Russians are sitting tight in the West of Syria. To tip the picture, the political solution as proposed does not threat Russian presence in West Syria in any way. It is a win-win situation for Putin. Time for him to pick as he pleases. But could anyone tell us one good reason why Putin should sacrifice his ties with Iran and his comfortable position this for an uncertain result of an uncertain political process? Could anyone explain why should Mr. Putin be energized one way or the other? Even if Assad goes, according to the proposed political solution, the Russians will remain. Their interests are safe either way. They only gain Iran’s gratitude if they neglect Ben Rhodes’s warnings. And they do.

As we previously said in Middle East Briefing (April 18): unless Putin exacts a fair price elsewhere for his real cooperation in Syria, he would be a fool to give up voluntarily one inch in Syria. No, not for free, and he certainly isn’t a fool. He has his own agenda, which is perfectly normal, in other spots from Ukraine to Central Asia to East Europe. He wants something in return. Something to compensate for what he may pay to buy the Obama administration lunch in Syria.

As Putin’s price is a little high, from Washington perspective, Syria’s war will drag on. But this is not the point. The point is how the Obama administration approached the diplomatic process. It should have been based on a reading of how Putin thinks, not on begging him to cooperate or eloquently explaining to him the logical reasons why he should.

Indeed, there are common Russian-American objectives in Syria: Defeating ISIL and stabilizing the country. But while the moment, as we see it now, appears to provide common grounds between Moscow and the others, it is also the very moment when others are most vulnerable to miscalculations and deception. The promoted rationality which aims at explaining a specific position in the part of Russia may be merely a smokescreen to hide different Russian objectives, all the while as it provides deceptive explanations about Russia’s moves. It could be a very convincing smoke screen set to drag the others to Moscow’s calculus. It is important to see the individual interests built in any situation in objective light regardless of what is said or of promoted explanations even if they seem credible.

Any “normal” country, say as South Africa, has in a way or another, an interest in defeating ISIL. Yet, South Africa has no say in the situation we are talking about. Mutual interests is an abstract term. It is concretized at the moment there are actual leverages and actual interests for this or that country in the given situation. But these actions should be consistent with the final objectives at all the moments. Yet, President Putin does n’t seem to be consistent, in all his moves, with the general framework agreed upon with Secretary Kerry. He is helping destroy the ceasefire he himself negotiated with Kerry and said he approves. Positioning additional forces to take Aleppo proves that common objectives used by the Obama administration as an explanation of why it is working closely with Assad, was a Russian smokescreen all along.

Yet, either Putin is sincere or not is not the point and should not be made the point. In either case the element of a country’s individual interest gains its concrete weight proportionally to the country’s leverage within the concept of a collective approach. If a given country has no tools to shape and influence the course of joint actions, it would remain a spectator as much as South Africa is in the case of Syria. Therefore, the US should have worked harder on developing its own leverages in the Syrian crisis from the start. This would have marginalized the importance of Putin intentions and would have placed questions about his real objectives in a different context where the US has multiple choices, not only to plead its case in the Kremlin or be threatened to swallow “Assad has to go” and put its role in the current desperate corner we see now.   

For the Obama administration, it is not “logical” that Assad remains in power as this would lead to the Arabs and the Turks providing the opposition with all they want to carry on the fight. It will not guarantee defeating ISIL or the stabilizing Syria or preventing any future emergence of another terrorist group. This is all fine.

But President Putin does not see it this way. He believes that Assad can, through brutal force and barrel bombs, remain in power and do the job nevertheless. Why wouldn’t he move to adapt to the US position? Because he does n’t have to. Because if he moves along with the US he would risk his alliance with Tehran. Because in either case, Assad or no Assad, he was given by the US an advance commitment to preserve his individual interests in Syria the moment the US gave up on the moderate opposition and the moment it structured the diplomatic approach the way it did.

From the start, the Obama administration did not do anything to change the calculus on the ground to force Putin or Assad to see it differently. The administration did not even see that Putin might interfere heavy handedly in Syria to force the American to pay him a price somewhere else in the world, and to solidify his ties with Iran. Putin was actively multiplying his leverage in Syria which was totally logical. What wasn’t is the long speeches in Washington justifying why the administration refused, for five years, many reasonable proposals to increase its own leverage there. This ultimately led to Administration officials knocking on the doors of the Kremlin to plead their case or losing sleep to try to figure out Putin’s real intentions.

Yet, we have the National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, resisting any serious step to change the calculus on the ground. As Reuters told us: “Other officials, including National Security Advisor Susan Rice, have vetoed any significant escalation of U.S. involvement in Syria”, a senior official told the news service. “Rice is the fly in the ointment, said a person familiar with the internal debate”, the agency added. But is the fly really Rice or President Obama?

The President said he is faced with the following dilemma: If he helps the opposition, he will be engaged in a proxy war with Russia. But if he doesn’t, Putin will further ridicule Washington’s policies in the Middle East and further expand Russia’s influence there. Yet the question here is: Why does the President see assistance to the opposition as a proxy war against Russia? Putin helps Assad bombs groups which receive assistance from the US, as the White House repeatedly warned last fall. Isn’t this an involvement in a proxy war against the US? By stating that the US doesn’t want to be engaged in a proxy war against the Russians, the President gives the impression that he is struggling to find an acceptable explanation for a policy he chose already. It is a “post festum” rhetoric.

Rhetoric aside, the configuration on the ground is clear, and Washington still has five minutes to midnight. The Obama administration must arm carefully vetted groups all the while devising mechanisms to put the brakes on their movement when necessary by keeping strong channels within any group. Allies can help, but the US still has to keep “its own” and exclusive channels. Qualitative arms should be accounted for every hour of the day. Use of such arms should be cleared, at least in general principles, beforehand.

There is no point in embalming the Geneva peace process. James Baker allegedly said to a reluctant Israeli PM Yitzhak Shamir during the preparations for Madrid Conference of 1991 “You know how to get in touch. Call us if you need us. Good Bye”. But those were the days my friends. The US Knew what should be done and did it. Now, Secretary Kerry should say the same to both Sergei Lavrov and Bashar Al Assad instead of trying single handedly to save a hopeless administration’s policy. The US should go full steam ahead with assisting moderate opposition until the point where Assad, Iran and Mr. Putin accept a reasonable political deal that preserves the Syrian State and stops the daily blood bath.

We reiterated multiple times in the past what is already known to everyone: You cannot reach a reasonable political solution unless the balance of power on the ground favors a reasonable political solution. For those who say that they had to try to stop the death of innocent civilians we would say that what is essential is not trying, but it is how you try. Sometimes trying to stop a tragedy leads to exacerbating it. President Obama told us that he tried to stop a tragedy in Benghazi in March 2011. Well, the tragedy now is the situation in all of Libya, including Benghazi.

The moment is not ripe for a favorable political solution in Syria yet.

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