DIMITRI K. SIMES and PAUL J. SAUNDERS
Dimitri K. Simes is the president and Paul J. Saunders is the executive director of the Center for the National Interest.
Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, publicly distanced the Kremlin from Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, announcing, "We are not concerned about the fate of Assad’s regime.” As Syria’s rebels continue to gain ground and Russia loses faith in Mr. Assad, America has an opportunity to both end the carnage in Syria and improve its relations with Moscow.
Helping oust Mr. Assad is an important American objective, but it pales in comparison with preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Indeed, removing Mr. Assad in a manner that alienates China and Russia, both of which are critical in dealing with Iran, would be a Pyrrhic victory.
By contrast, working with Mr. Putin could pay off at the United Nations Security Council, where Russia’s reflexive opposition to American initiatives since the 2011 NATO offensive in Libya has stymied many of Washington’s diplomatic efforts. It could also limit Iran’s role in Syria and help frustrate Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The collapse of Mr. Assad’s government wouldn’t mean the end of Syria’s troubles. It’s not only when he leaves power that matters, but how.
It’s worth recalling that violence in Iraq claimed approximately 100,000 lives after Saddam Hussein fell. And a total collapse of the government and military Syria, like that engineered by President George W. Bush in Iraq, would most likely lead to further unrest and bloodshed and could produce another terrorist sanctuary like that which existed in Afghanistan in the 1990s. (That country’s growing instability in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s military withdrawal in 1988-9 — when America and its allies opted to pursue total military victory and turned down Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s proposals for power-sharing talks — helped pave the way for 9/11.)
Avoiding an Iraqi-style security vacuum or an Afghan-style terrorist haven must be a key American goal in post-Assad Syria. And Russia can help, if the Obama administration is prepared to rethink its approach to the crisis.
The United States has wisely called for China’s and Russia’s cooperation. However, the administration appears to define "working together” as giving Russia the opportunity to adopt American positions and implement American policies without any meaningful input — which alienates the Kremlin.
Despite its desire to avoid continuing instability and bloodshed in Syria, the Obama administration so far hasn’t been prepared to take the next logical step: seeking a negotiated solution to end the fighting. It seems to prefer the idea of a complete military and political triumph for the rebels.
But do American officials really believe that the Syrian opposition is sufficiently well organized to assume full responsibility for governing? Or that the Free Syrian Army can establish security across the country? And how would the United States stop sectarian reprisals with no troops and limited leverage — or prevent those reprisals from producing a new spiral of killing? America will also have to contend with the influence of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in a post-Assad Syria. Both countries have a much better understanding of Syria and its politics, as well as ties to rebel commanders there, including some that Washington considers terrorists.
A negotiated solution, with Russia’s help, could help address many of these challenges. As Mr. Assad’s position has weakened and his tactics have become more brutal, Russian officials have begun privately to refer to Syria’s leader as "a butcher” and acknowledge that he must go. America could win Russia’s support for Mr. Assad’s departure, so long as it was not a precondition but rather a product of the early stages of negotiations.
Removing Mr. Assad and laying the groundwork for a stable Syria would require a deal with some members of the existing government and parts of Syria’s military that would preserve some government institutions — at least during a transitional period — and protect the Alawites and others groups that have backed Mr. Assad.
Russia would most likely support a process that retained some less odious officials in order to sell it to Mr. Assad’s supporters, including die-hards in the Syrian military. Moscow would probably prefer Syria’s vice president, Farouk al-Sharaa, as an interim leader, but informed Russian sources say that the Kremlin would most likely accept a rebel leader who is not an Islamic extremist — a goal that dovetails with American aims.
Russia may seem an unsavory partner. And Moscow’s motivations for a negotiated transition are hardly altruistic: maintaining military and commercial contacts in Syria, winning prestige by being part of the solution to a major international crisis and avoiding domestic fallout from violence in a country that is home to roughly 30,000 Russian citizens would all benefit the Kremlin. But a stable Syria is in America’s interest, too.
The Obama administration therefore faces a stark choice. It can go for a knockout or opt for a brokered peace that brings greater stability.
Those who argue for helping the rebels achieve a complete triumph should remember that the next chapter could look a lot like Iraq or Afghanistan.
A negotiated solution, with Russian cooperation, would ultimately produce an outcome that better serves America’s long-term security interests — and saves more Syrian lives.