A few weeks back, after Secretary of State Kerry and Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov had successfully negotiated a temporary ceasefire in the Syrian civil war, for the first time in its five-and-a-half-year history things seemed headed in a direction that might — maybe, perhaps — lead to a solution.

A long slow process, at best, lay ahead, but to dredge up a cliche from our own involvement in an even longer and bloodier war, there did seem to be a little light flickering at the end of a very dark tunnel.

No longer. The ceasefire ultimately evaporated in an explosion of barrel bombs dropped by the Assad government, in coordination with their ally Russia, that seemed almost deliberately aimed at the few hospitals still operating in rebel-held eastern Aleppo.

Hundreds were killed, many children, splashing some of the most heart-wrenching pictures of the tragic war across the front page of Western newspapers. Kerry felt betrayed by his Russian counterpart, and while he met several more times with Lavrov to try to get the bombing halted, the Obama administration concluded that the talks, and the ceasefire, had failed: “The United States spared no effort negotiating and attempting to implement an arrangement with Russia aimed at reducing violence,” the State Department spokesman said. “Unfortunately, Russia and the Syrian regime have chosen to pursue a military course.”

Quitting negotiations is an understandable reaction to Russia’s refusal to reign in their comrade-in-arms, but realistically, the only alternative to more deaths, more homeless children, more wounded piled up on the bloodied floors of half-destroyed hospitals is some sort of tentative peace, even a half-hearted one, that at least briefly slows down the slaughter. Unfortunately, the US holds few cards; refusing further talks with Russia only assures that the war continues. 

On a deeper level, the US has little real strategic interest in Syria. So long as ISIS or an al-Qaeda affiliate doesn’t gain from the Syrian civil war, who does is not of great international significance for the US.

Meanwhile, ISIS is entrenched in parts of western Syria; moderate rebels to the west are aligned with extremist ones to fight against Assad; Syrian Kurds are trying to carve out their own piece of land along the Turkish border; Turkey provides arms to anti-Assad rebels, while trying to undermine the Kurdish forces, who like Ankara are anti-ISIS and anti-Assad. It’s a chaotic free-for-all. 

What Russia’s President Putin wants out of this bloody mess is perhaps the only thing that is relatively clear: the continuation in power of Assad or his replacement by someone sufficiently pro-Russian to guarantee Russian access to its naval and air facilities along the Syrian coast near Latakia.  Which, of course, would assure a continued modicum of Russian influence in the Middle East.

President Obama, shortly after the turmoil began, famously, and unfortunately, drew a line in the sand against Assad; Obama then promptly ignored it. Reneging on his threat was an embarrassing decision — but a wise one. The only way the US could have overthrown Assad and replaced him with a pro-Western regime would have been to send in hundreds of thousands of troops — and we saw how that worked in Iraq. 

The US has provided weapons and some training to moderate rebels, but after more than five years of war, moderate rebels are a fast-disappearing breed. Obama knows — and let’s hope his successor realizes it as well — that Syria is of little significance in the great scheme of things that have real importance for US-Russian relations. Russia’s in decline; propping up Assad will not change that underlying reality.

 


Presumably, the renewed attacks against the rebel-held part of Aleppo reflect a decision by Russia that winning in Aleppo is key: total control of Aleppo would give Assad a considerably stronger military position, and its ally Russia, a considerably stronger negotiating one with the US.

While ISIS has maintained control over a large piece of territory in Syria’s far east, centered around its proclaimed capital of Raqqa, the area is mostly desert. Assad controls Damascus and has recently been retaking areas on its outskirts. He also controls the large central Syrian towns of Homs and Hama and the main highway connecting them to Damascus and to the Mediterranean coast. Syrian Kurds have carved out a zone in the northeast along the Turkish border, and various rebel factions control bits and pieces from Aleppo south to Damascus. But altogether, the Assad government probably controls nearly 75% of the population, and with Russian support, it has been more than holding its own in recent months. 

Although the negotiating positions of the US and Russia are hardly public, presumably the permanence of its Mediterranean naval and air facilities is non-negotiable for Russia. Leaked comments did seem at one point to indicate that the US had accepted that Assad could remain in power for a brief period while his successor was agreed upon. But when exactly Assad would step down — and who would replace him — is surely the key stumbling block in any US-Russian dialogue. 

One can guess that as Assad’s hand has strengthened recently, Russia was demanding a longer interim period for Assad, and that the US realized that, with any lengthy ceasefire, Assad might manage to hold on to power indefinitely.

Undoubtedly, Russia fears ISIS: with their Muslim-inhabited lands in the Caucasus, Russia faces a potentially greater threat from ISIS than the US does. So one can foresee that once Aleppo falls to Assad’s troops, Russia and the US could focus their joint efforts on re-taking Raqqa and destroying, or at least driving out, ISIS forces in Syria. In Iraq, the ISIS-held area around Mosul is under attack, so by the end of the winter, it’s possible ISIS will no longer hold key population centers in either Syria or Iraq.

That’s the potential good news. The bad news is that Assad by then will be more fully entrenched than at any time since the early months of the civil war. When the US resumes negotiations with Russia — under Obama or his successor — Assad will clearly have the upper hand. Any future peace deal would likely leave him in power while a successor government is chosen. And Russia will assure that any successor government remains an ally. Under the circumstances, Syria’s anti-Assad rebels might continue fighting sporadically, perhaps indefinitely, turning the conflict into a semi-permanent guerrilla war. After all, in Colombia, FARQ was at it for 50 years. But it’s hard to envision a scenario where pro-Assad forces do not ultimately carry the day.

Of course, there are far better alternatives for the Syrian people, but, realistically, so long as the US remains on the sidelines — as we most assuredly should do — it’s hard to see how any better alternative can come to pass. Indeed, better a quasi-Assad victory now than — more destruction, more bloodshed — a quasi-Assad victory later.

What’s relevant for the US and the West — and has always been — is that were the Syrian civil war to end with Putin retaining an ally in Syria, that would hardly be a geostrategic game-changer.