The Syrian conflict has put increasing pressure on U.S. partners in Syria’s immediate neighborhood, and has with the migrant crisis begun to affect Europe in earnest as well. Washington’s strategy has so far been one of restraint. Russia and Iran, on the other hand, are investing significant political capital and resources to support the Syrian regime. The recent Russian military build-up in Syria is likely paving the way for a diplomatic offensive by Moscow during the upcoming UN General Assembly. There is still time for Washington to alter course and begin devoting the means necessary to achieve the ends it has stated it wants realized. If it does not act soon, however, its European allies will increasingly look to Moscow and Tehran for a solution.
Today more than ever, Europe is directly confronted with the dramatic consequences of the Syrian civil war. Of the 213,000 asylum requests filled out between April and June on European soil, 44,000 were completed by Syrians. The flow of refugees fleeing both the Assad regime’s barrel bombs and the Islamic State’s exactions is unlikely to shrink without a political transition in Syria. Beyond refugees, the war has attracted radical fighters from Europe into Syria, increasing the risk of terrorist attacks in the near future. French intelligence indicates that the Islamic State is preparing attacks against European and French targets from its Syrian stronghold. Ayoub El-Khazzani, the alleged shooter in the foiled Thalys attack, is said to have trained in Syria. All this has bolstered public pressure for some kind of intervention. A recent poll shows 61% of the French public favorable to a ground intervention against ISIS, while two thirds of the British public supports air strikes in Syria.
While the Obama Administration has invested all its political capital in securing support in Washington for the nuclear agreement negotiated with Iran, it has been very careful not to get itself into another military campaign and to commit significant resources on the Syrian theatre, despite repeating the mantra that Assad must go. President Obama has several times said that the nuclear agreement would not be a way for his administration to withdraw from the Middle East. Yet his Syrian policy is interpreted in the region, but also in Europe, as an indication to the contrary.
Of course, Europeans aren’t in the best position to hold sermons to their American friends about Syria. They have struggled to formulate a common vision on the ways to end the conflict beyond the rhetorical demand that keeping Assad in power cannot be part of such settlement. France, in accordance with its officially articulated muscular regional stance, has long advocated a tough line against Assad. But in the summer of 2013, France was left holding the bag after the United Kingdom, and subsequently the United States, failed to enforce the infamous “red line” which the Assad regime pointedly ignored when it used chemical weapons against its own people. Two years later, the UK is now carrying out drone strikes in Syria against British ISIS fighters. France declined in 2014 to take part in the U.S.-led coalition strikes in Syria, but Paris launched first strikes in Syria on September 27 to target terror cells believed to prepare attacks against it. Germany, which is hosting the majority of the refugees arriving in Europe, has for its part long been calling for stronger diplomatic initiatives while showing skepticism about any military options in Syria.
At the core of the West’s inability to shape events in Syria is the refusal to align its stated political objective—a political settlement without Assad—with the means required to create a power balance on the ground compatible with this goal.
Meanwhile, Iran and Russia have much been less restrained in using force to achieve their political ends. Both countries have been supporting Assad from day one, directly and through proxies. Retaining a strong influence over whoever leads Syria is key for Tehran regional ambitions, as it preserves Iran’s ability to support Hezbollah in Lebanon. Moscow wants to preserve its foothold in the Mediterranean by keeping its facility in Tartus, but is also keen to prove that it is a reliable ally. From early in the crisis, Iran had sent a large number of advisers and militia troops to fight on behalf of Assad. And Russia’s most recent deployment of troops and materiel to Syria is a bid to establish facts on the ground ahead of any upcoming negotiations about a political transition.
We should of course not be opposed to discussing a political transition with Tehran and Moscow in principle. At this point though, it remains unlikely to yield positive results, as they show neither the will to negotiate, nor do they feel sufficient pressure to accept an outcome that would in any way compromise their interests. Both Russia and Iran continue to support the Syrian president, and advocate for an alliance with his regime to fight terrorism. They define terrorism broadly, encompassing both the Islamic State and the large number of rebel groups fighting Assad.
Such a strategy is more likely to prolong the conflict than to bring it to an end. The more the West makes it clear it is willing to cooperate with Assad, the more it will fuel the Islamic State’s narrative that the group is the only organization really engaged in fighting the Syrian President. But the more the United States waits to formulate alternatives, the more Europe will be inclined to fall for Russia and Iran’s “rewarding the arsonist” temptation. Signs abound of a shift already underway. Germany’s Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, “strongly welcomed” Russia’s “growing military engagement in the region” in a joint press conference held last week with U.S. Secretary Kerry. This past Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a “conversation” with Assad—something the Russians have been calling for as a necessary first step for a long time.
U.S. policymakers should not underestimate the pull that Russian President Vladimir Putin increasingly has among certain segments of the European electorate. Populist movements laud him by portraying him as a guardian of traditional values against decadent Western mores, supposed American imperialism, and the growing threat of radical Islam on the European continent. And this narrative is now also percolating through larger political movements in Western Europe. The EU’s mainstream politicians may be concerned about Putin’s ultimate goals, but they are not above making expedient political decisions to win over marginal voters who are increasingly turning to formerly fringe parties.
An open break over cooperating with Iran and Russia over Syria could well come to pass, and it would set a troubling precedent for transatlantic unity. It may also put the European sanctions regime implemented against Russia over its aggression in Ukraine under increasing strains. And even if Mrs Merkel herself has no intention of linking Syria with the Ukraine conflict, Hungary and Slovakia, both strong skeptics of the EU sanctions regime, have shown during last week’s debate on refugee relocation quotas that they are ready to oppose a European majority even without the support of a bigger European player. There is no solving of one crisis at the expense of the other.
The upcoming United Nations General Assembly is likely to feature much intrigue. Putin will address the Assembly for the first time in a decade, and he and President Obama are set to meet face-to-face on the sidelines of the meeting tomorrow. Syria will be high on their agenda, which Mr Putin has been able to shape thanks to his initiatives on the ground. The running option of doing the minimum now means that the Russians and the Iranians will do what they must to secure their interests.
The West ought not accept a solution based on a de facto alliance with Assad. Beyond moral and ethical principles at stake, this is mostly about pragmatic ones: this would be a recipe for prolonging the war in Syria, with all the associated and by now readily apparent spillover humanitarian and political costs for Europe to bear. Russia and Iran do not offer a sustainable way out of the crisis in Syria so far. The objectives set out in the Geneva 2012 Syria Action Group Final Communique, endorsed by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, including Russia, remain relevant. The solution isn’t to shift from these objectives because means to compel Russia and Iran to respect them are lacking. It lies rather in aligning our means with our political ends. It is not too late for the United States, in coordination with its European partners, to do it.