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U.S. Warming to Russian/Iranian Proposals on Syria?

Walter Russell Mead

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is losing on the battlefield but making gains at the conference table. That appears to be the story behind the story in this morning’s New York Times. That is, the U.S. seems to have moved some way toward the long time Russia/Iranian position that to insist that “Assad must go” is a mistake—even as losses on the battlefield undermine the dynasty’s power on the ground. Key passage:

Of all the recent diplomatic exchanges and openings, none is more important than the apparent new spirit of cooperation between Russia and the United States. Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of a council that advises the Kremlin on foreign policy, said that conversations were returning to the topic of Syria after a year of exclusive focus on the Iran deal, with each side a bit “less firm” in its position.

“Saudi still believes that Assad should go, but now they are a little less sure that the alternative will be better,” he said in a recent interview with The New York Times. “Russia still believes he should stay, but cannot ignore that the general situation is changing, that the strategic position for Syria is much worse now than before.”

What appears to be happening is that the Obama administration wants to use the Iran nuclear agreement as the beginning of a drive to make Iran something of a “responsible stakeholder” in the Middle East and that, given the disarray of the Sunni coalition and the proliferation of Sunni radical groups, it sees no other way forward.

It also appears that the administration is bringing Russia into its Middle Eastern diplomacy. Not since the Cold War has Russia been this much of a factor in a Middle East dispute. For Putin, this is a big win. Not only does it add considerably to Russia’s prestige; Russia has long believed that Iran and Syria can help it in its battle to keep Sunni radicals out of the Caucasus and southern Russia. Russia also has significant investments in Syria and in the Assad government.

In terms of administration politics, this appears to represent the victory of the Jeffersonians over the Wilsonian human rights crowd. Dealing with Assad is not the way people like Samantha Power would normally want to go. But the Obama administration hasn’t had very much luck when it lets the liberal human rights Wilsonian faction in the administration get its hands on the steering wheel: witness the shambolic U.S. attempts to promote the illusory ‘transition to democracy’ in post-Mubarak Egypt, the horror of the Libyan invasion, the pitiful results of American efforts in Syria so far.

The direction of Syria diplomacy will not bring much comfort to Saudi Arabia or to Israel. Both countries don’t want to see a deal emerge that leaves an Iran-aligned and Iran-dependent government in Damascus, allied to Hezbollah. But Sunni powers roughly aligned with the Saudis haven’t managed to put together a coherent approach of their own. Unwilling to work openly with Israel, unable to develop fighting forces that can match either the Alawi or the radicals in Syria, the Sunni powers haven’t yet come up with some kind of credible alternative to the current government in Syria, blood-soaked and hated as it is.

Iran and its allies have the upper hand in the region, even if Assad isn’t doing that well on the battlefields of Syria at the moment. And with the United States under Obama more willing to reduce its liabilities in the Middle East than to take on any new responsibilities, the Americans are de facto aligning with the stronger regional force. Rather than acting as an offshore balancer that would be trying at this point to help the weaker parties in the region from being overwhelmed, the United States is looking towards a policy of deputizing Iran.

We’ll see how that works. Feeding the egos of the ayatollahs and of Putin may or may not be a smart way to conduct American foreign policy. But when the Sunnis can’t do anything constructive on the ground in Syria that would break both ISIS and Assad, and with the United States unwilling to put any real effort into the country, this is where you end up.

President Obama’s determination to reduce America’s exposure in the Middle East is stronger now than at any time since his election. Gone is the hope of a fresh start with the Islamic world, gone is the hope that ‘moderate Islamists’ could create, with American backing, a democratic alternative; gone is the hope for the Arab spring. What’s left is the hope that Iran can fill the vacuum left by Sunni failure and American retreat.

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