American Interest

Assad Attacks as Talks Falter

Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship

The U.N. has suspended peace talks in the Syrian Civil War until later this month, citing lack of progress. The New York Times reports:

The recess comes as Russian airstrikes have helped Syrian forces make major advances in the conflict and made them far less likely, diplomats say, to enter into serious negotiations. At the same time, the rebels and their backers in Saudi Arabia and Turkey are hard-pressed to negotiate a political deal, or even a truce, without a guarantee that their chief nemesis, President Bashar al-Assad, will be ousted.[..]

The talks in Geneva had barely begun, with Mr. de Mistura meeting a government delegation last Friday and continuing meetings with the main opposition delegation on Monday and Wednesday. The gulf between the two sides remains so wide that they were never meant to meet face to face.

There was discord over who would represent the opposition and what would be discussed, and by the time both parties arrived in Geneva, the goals were ratcheted down. The opposition delegation insisted that no political negotiations could begin until sieges had been lifted on rebel-held towns, airstrikes halted and political prisoners released.

Yet the suspension of the talks made it clear that even those modest goals were not to be met anytime soon.

The U.S. put a tremendous amount of effort into getting these talks started, and has already come under fire for pushing Syrian rebel groups to make concessions to the Russia-Syria-Iran position. And now here we are.

In spring, we're likely to see a huge new refugee wave setting off massive crises in Europe, adding to the pressure on European governments to yield some ground to Russia and Assad. That will put the U.S. in an ugly position: European allies will be pushing us to make more concessions to Russia and Iran while our Sunni Arab allies and Turkey will be enraged at the spectacle of a further weakening of what they already consider is a disastrous appeasement policy. And these acrimonious politics will play out with the backdrop of a truly horrific humanitarian catastrophe steadily growing worse.

All this works pretty well from Moscow's point of view: Russia’s global prestige is going up as its client-making military makes progress, even as America’s alliances are undermined by ugly controversies and the U.S. administration looks weak and ineffective. Not bad for an operation that analysts say is only sapping 2 to 4 percent of Russia's annual defense budget—a budget still off-limits to any cutting.

Very few issues this consequential have been this poorly handled by an American government.