Out of the Loop
A View from the Syria Sidelines

The decision-makers in Syria are meeting in Kazakhstan this week for a new series of peace talks brokered by Russia and Turkey. The United States, however, is notably absent, leaving Western diplomats anxiously watching from the sidelines and hoping to catch wind of the latest developments. FT offers a revealing snapshot of the scene in Astana:

Once they were the diplomatic elite, swooping into hushed meetings with the movers and shakers of Syrian peace talks. But in the new political reality of Russian-dominated diplomacy in Syria, western envoys found themselves relegated with journalists to the plaid-carpeted Irish Pub of a hotel in Kazakhstan.

“We’re like party crashers . . . And we’re completely out of the loop,” one joked, as he and other officials traded information gleaned from rebels or the UN envoy, who was invited by Russia and Turkey, the new power brokers of Syria’s near six-year conflict. […]

“I’m not feeling so sorry for the US or the west losing its role. They never really pushed for us,” grumbled one opposition delegate.

“Look where they are now — literally in a corner. They’re screwed,” he said, as pro-government journalists eyed him from under a cloud of cigarette smoke.

It would be hard to stage a more telling portrait of the Obama Administration’s legacy of strategic irrelevance in Syria. After years of indulging John Kerry with futile peace talks, Russia has finally dispensed with the charade and cut the United States completely out of the picture. And to judge by the scene described in Astana, even the opposition players who are nominally aligned with Washington are not itching for the U.S. to rejoin the negotiating table.

Apart from scrapping trade deals, Team Trump has yet to show much of its hand on foreign policy. Given the President’s overwhelming focus on fighting Islamist terrorism above all else on the campaign trail, one might surmise that he’s not too bothered to have the Russians, Turks, and Iranians sort out the shape of Syria going forward, with the United States in no way engaged.

Still, especially in the Middle East, clout matters, and setting the terms of whatever arrangement for a country like Syria gains you a lot in the neighborhood. Effectively rooting out ISIS will require more than a reliance on spy satellites and smart bombs; allies will be necessary. A forceful, determined re-engagement with the region could reverse a lot of the reputational hits the United States has sustained over the last six or so years. Is Trump up for it, though?

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