How Putin Is Out-Maneuvering Obama in Syria

Russia moves to save its brutal ally -- and is encountering little resistance.

In what has become a monthly ritual, the United Nations Security Council received a briefing on March 30th regarding the very dire humanitarian conditions in war-torn Syria. Stephen O’Brien, the Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, delivered the latest assessment. He noted as positive developments a respite in violence in some parts of the country since the cessation of hostilities came into effect one month ago, and some limited progress on access for the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged and hard-to-reach areas. However, he said that many of the 4.6 million people in need “still remain outside our reach due to insecurity and obstructions by the parties.” 

Syrian authorities are still throwing bureaucratic hurdles in the way of getting timely approvals for delivery of critical medical supplies, food, and other aid.  The “daily misery” in the affected areas “shames us all,” O’Brien said.

The so-called peace talks conducted by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, which are intended to find a political solution that brings an end to the conflict, got off to a belated start this February. And once they began, they have proceeded in a stop-and-go fashion. They are now in adjournment until the second week of April.

Mr. de Mistura tried to put the best face on the peace process to date. At least, he said, there were “no breakdowns, no walkouts and no de-legitimization.” Perhaps that is so for right now. But there has been no substantive progress either. This lack of progress is reflected in a paper produced by the Special Envoy, acting as a facilitator, which purported to show a number of potential areas of common ground between the government and the opposition. It sidestepped what he called “the mother of all issues, the transition, the political transition, the political process.” The “elephant in the room,” namely Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s future role, was ignored as well.

The Syrian government and opposition representatives have not been meeting face-to-face. Rather, they have engaged in what are euphemistically called “proximity talks,” with Mr. de Mistura playing the go-between. Nevertheless, Secretary of State John Kerry, the pollyannaish architect of the disastrous nuclear deal with Iran, said earlier in March, “We may face the best opportunity that we’ve had in years to end (the war).”

To the extent that the talks in Geneva are continuing at all, Russia, not the United States, has created the conditions on the ground that gave both sides the incentive to at least go through the motions. Russia’s military intervention in Syria bolstered Bashar al-Assad’s bargaining position, as his regime’s forces were able to take back some territory lost to the Syrian rebels. Following its military successes, Russia withdrew a significant amount of its forces from Syria, although they can be easily returned if needed. The opposition’s losses on the ground have caused some key opposition members to confront the stark reality of their deteriorating situation. The only realistic chance they have of obtaining any sharing of political power in Syria is to participate in the talks being conducted by Mr. de Mistura, with the backing of Russia and the United States. One key stumbling block for the opposition, however, is deciding who is entitled to represent them in Geneva.

Here again, Russia is influencing the outcome. The UN Special Envoy met not only with the so-called “official” opposition delegation approved by Saudi Arabia, which wants to see President Assad step down. Mr. de Mistura also met with an opposition group supported by Russia. Known as the Moscow Group, it is demanding equal negotiating status with the members of the “official” opposition High Negotiations Committee. The latter has claimed the exclusive right to represent the opposition in the negotiations and wants Assad out of power as soon as possible. However, the Moscow Group, with Russia’s backing, is not insisting on Assad’s departure when it comes time to create a transitional government. This is a recipe for a divided opposition, which the Syrian regime can exploit to its advantage. 

The co-president of the Moscow Group is Syria’s former deputy premier. Although he was removed from his government position by Assad in 2013, the Syrian government would rather negotiate with his group than the more intractable High Negotiations Committee. Just as Russia managed to turn things around for Assad on the battlefield by giving him air cover, Russia is now giving Assad diplomatic cover by pushing for recognition of the Moscow Group as part of the official opposition delegation.

Vladimir Putin continues to outsmart President Obama at every turn. We saw it happen when Putin got Obama to back off his “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons. We saw it happen during the nuclear negotiations with Iran and its aftermath. Russia is exploiting loopholes in the deal agreed to by the Obama administration in order to now protect Iran from the imposition of Security Council sanctions for its testing of ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons. And now we are seeing Putin use the military gains he helped Assad win on the battlefield and a strategy to divide the opposition as the means to influence the direction of the peace talks to his ally’s advantage.