Will the US and Russia get together to grease the skids for Assad?
That’s the latest plan floating around Washington DC, according to the NYT. For both powers this would be a compromise; so far, Washington has been talking only about getting him out quickly while talking of crimes against humanity and trials at the Hague. The Russians have talked about reforming the regime without changing personnel. Letting Assad step aside in a dignified way into a comfortable if obscure retirement splits the US-Russian difference down the middle — as long as the US agrees to support Russia’s claims for some influence and commercial ties with whatever comes next in Syria.
Arranging a dignified exit for the blood-drenched strongman might stick in the craw of the human rights lobby, but if such an arrangement could be devised it would probably be the best way to minimize the chances for chaos, more bloodshed and the ultimate rise of religious fanatics in Syria. This would also minimize the chances for wider war in Lebanon and Iraq.
Russia and the US have both had unsatisfactory experiences with their Syria policy. Russian defense of Assad has isolated Russia — the Arabs, the Turks and the Europeans are all furious with the Kremlin. Assad’s mix of brutality and weakness — he is brutal enough to kill thousands of people but too weak to crush the resistance — makes him a less useful ally and it looks increasingly as if he will ultimately fall. Russia, the Obama administration hopes, is ready to look for a change.
The Americans have also not covered themselves in glory when it comes to the Syrian situation. Few policies are more vacuous and self-humiliating than to speak loudly and brazenly while doing nothing serious. This has been exactly the Obama administration’s posture for months now, and it is a disaster and a folly. Hot headed moralistic rhetoric accompanied by thumb-twiddling and evasion makes you look weak, inept and ill-tempered.
Worse, the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, with devastating consequences for Syrians today and potentially for the whole region, including Syria, in the future. The administration is increasingly worried, and with good reason, about the people likely to take power in the event of a prolonged civil war and a chaotic transition.
Russia and the US have both reluctantly concluded that their Syria policies have failed. Now, as they look around for second or third-best options, they begin to identify ways in which they might be able to work together after all.
This is often the case in US-Russian relations. When each side feels that it has a free hand, it is not interested in working with the other. We didn’t need Russian help in Libya, Kosovo and Iraq so we didn’t consult Russian interests. In the same way, when it comes to Russian policy in Georgia or Belarus, Russia does what it wants and leaves us to cope with the consequences.
But there are an interesting number of cases where neither one of us can get what we really want, but can maybe get a bit more with some cooperation. From the Far East to Central Asia, Iran, Syria and at other points around Russia’s periphery, there are a number of places where either now or in the future US-Russian cooperation may help avert the worst if not quite usher in what either we or they would regard as a perfect world.
Sometimes pragmatism works. Syria may be one of those places; giving Assad a dignified retirement and a peaceful old age and asking the new Syrian government to think about Russian commercial interests strikes Via Meadia as an acceptable price if it avoids the risks of a true Syrian meltdown.