Terra Incognita: How Russia outwitted America in Syria

The problem with US “diplomacy” is that it is not diplomacy.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As Syria and its Russian allies pound Aleppo from the air and ground, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has upped his war of words with Washington.
“In spite of many repeated promises and commitments... we have more and more reason to believe that from the very beginning the [US] plan was to spare Nusra and to keep it just in case for Plan B or stage two when it would be time to change the regime,” he said.
The allegation that the US is working with Nusra, which is also known as Jabhra Fateh al-Sham and which is connected to al-Qaida, is part of a larger Russian narrative that the US is working with jihadist extremists in Syria, while Russia is pragmatically fighting a “war on terror.” It is a narrative that has increasingly won on the battlefield, in diplomatic corridors and in the media.
America has been addicted to diplomacy in Syria since protests against the regime of Bashar Assad broke out in 2011. After the US refrained from bombing Syria in September 2013 and decided instead to channel negotiations regarding chemical weapons through Russia, it signaled that the US would never put a credible military threat on the table. More fortuitous for Assad was the rise of Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014 and the pivoting of US policy from seeking to remove Assad to fighting ISIS.
In July 2015 the US signed the Iran deal, a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s and Secretary of State John Kerry’s “diplomacy first” agenda. The Russians correctly read the Iran deal and the decision by the US to focus a bombing campaign on ISIS as a step-down of demands that Assad leave power. The Iran deal strengthened Assad as well because Iran is a key supporter for the regime and has helped fund it, as well as sending tens of thousands of Shi’ite mercenaries, mostly from Afghanistan, to fight in Syria. The Russians saw the US addiction to diplomacy as an inherent weakness of US policy-making.
In a December issue of The New Yorker, David Remnick noted that Kerry wanted a “breakthrough” on Syria and that ending the conflict was on his “bucket list” of to-do items before the administration’s term ended. The same article noted that “developments in Syria were clear enough: at least two hundred thousand dead, over a million refugees, millions more displaced. The regime – backed by Iranian troops, Hezbollah guerrillas, Russian air-strikes on rebel outposts and support from Iraqi [Shi’ite militias].” Obama was portrayed as fearing that any action on Syria would lead to another Iraq, a slippery slope, sucking in US money and troops. The Remnick article diagnosed the problem, but the Americans showed time and again they either didn’t understand the problem or were too naive to address what was really happening in Syria.
As thousands more died and millions more became refugees, with the exception of the budding relationship with Syria’s Kurds the US kept hammering down the same track.
The fact that the US telegraphed openly the fact it would never do more than negotiate made diplomacy a moot issue. The Russians correctly understood that Americans value diplomacy for diplomacy’s sake.
When there is a war and one side, such as the Syrian rebels, is slowly losing, the longer diplomacy goes on, the worse it is for them.
Yet in August Kerry was still talking to the Russians, hoping that a “political transition could begin,” according to Reuters. “It is critical, obviously, that Russia restrain both itself and the Assad regime from conducting offensive operations,” Kerry said in August. When a “cease-fire,” which was never really a ceasefire, came into affect in September, the White house press secretary Josh Earnest openly derided its chances of success. “I think we’d have some reasons to be skeptical that the Russians are able or are willing to implement the arrangement consistent with the way it’s been described,” he said, but added, “we will see.” And the world did see exactly what happened during the “cease-fire”: Assad and his allies deepened their siege of Aleppo and air-strikes continued. Yet the Americans keep talking about “easing Assad out of office.”
This is nonsensical. He isn’t being eased anywhere, except into more power in Syria.
Meanwhile media aligned with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has openly boasted of the Russian success. Sputnik news noted that “Russia’s air campaign in Syria helped it develop ‘realistic diplomacy.’” Russia has been clear about its support for Assad since the conflict began. In 2015 it began a major air campaign, first telling the world it was “fighting ISIS,” which like so many things, led the naïve Western powers to accept the campaign with few reservations. A year on, the air campaign has rolled back Syrian rebel advances and killed thousands.
KERRY WAS recorded in a discussion with Syrian groups in Geneva in September as admitting that the US administration didn’t know what to do about Aleppo. “We’re trying to pursue diplomacy, and I understand its frustrating,” he said. But again and again he showed how unrealistic the Americans are when it comes to Syria. He claimed that while the US was fighting ISIS, it was not fighting Hezbollah because “it’s not plotting against us.” He even indicated that Syrian refugees should be willing to take part in Syrian regime-run elections.
The problem again and again with US “diplomacy” is that it is not diplomacy.
Diplomacy is a policy designed to create an outcome with an opposing force that is also diplomatically trustworthy. When an enemy is massacring people and you say “we will use diplomacy,” you are merely giving the enemy time to massacre more people. It’s the difference between negotiating with a hostage taker and negotiating with a hostage taker who is killing hostages. There is no “negotiation” in the second scenario, unless one wants to let more hostages die. US diplomacy in a world where the US has nothing credible to back up its talk, where the US puts all its cards on the table and where America’s opponents openly mock the naivety of Washington policy-makers, has turned US policy into a tool of its opponents. Because the Americans can be counted upon to do everything to make “diplomacy” appear to work, countries such as Syria, Iran and Russia simply play along, while conducting the policy they always wanted all along. There is no evidence that US diplomacy has ever restrained anything in the last decade. In that sense Washington policy in the last years been geared upon doing whatever other countries want to do.
Russia read the US playbook, and plays to the US need to feel arrogant about its “successful, but frustrating, diplomacy.” So they talk and talk, and the US never gets anything, and the Russian ground game succeeds in Syria, bit by bit.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.