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Washington Relegated to Bystander Status in Syria Talks

Russia’s multifaceted involvement in the Syrian war has now tipped the advantage decisively in favor of the government led by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Its well-considered system of local ceasefires and “reconciliations”—little more than glorified surrenders—between the regime and all manner of defeated members of the opposition has been fortified by a “de-escalation” regime, joined by Turkish, Iranian, and American junior partners in expanding perimeters throughout the country.

This effort is capped by a Russian-led diplomatic juggernaut in the Kazakh capital of Astana that is out-performing the moribund U.S.-led Geneva process. Russian President Vladimir Putin has defined Russian objectives clearly and resolutely, and marshaled inferior resources with skill and determination—much to the consternation of Washington.

During the just completed seventh round of talks in Astana, Putin’s plan for an All Syria Conference later this month in Sochi to discuss a new constitution [1] for post-war Syria, was placed on the table. Members of the Syrian opposition will boycott his parley at their peril.

The Astana process marks only the latest example of what has been a seminal failure of U.S. diplomacy and its military effort to establish Washington as the arbiter of Syria’s future—a dubious prize to be sure, but one that two American presidents have deemed of national interest to fight for since civil war broke out in 2011.

Iran, along with Turkey and Russia, are Astana’s guarantors. Even the para-state Hezbollah is today better positioned than Washington to affect the nature and composition of the postwar regime Moscow is attempting to shepherd. Washington is relegated to the gallery that Putin, whose military intervention in September 2015 was derided by Defense Secretary Ash Carter as “doomed to fail,” [2] has assembled.

Yet despite the headlines, Syria has never been a zero sum contest between Washington and Moscow. Once the Obama administration’s feverish demand for the destruction of the ruling Ba’ath Party security regime was abandoned, a foundation for U.S.-Russian “de-confliction” in the battle against ISIS was established. The Russian draft constitution, [1] released earlier this year, offers important elements aimed at meeting Kurdish interests within a unified Syrian state that under other circumstances could find favor in Washington.

But as Syria’s endgame unfolds, Washington’s outsized dreams are crashing to earth. It is literally basing its future on premises that are untenable in the long-term, and which are betrayed by a seemingly willful ignorance of Syrian history.


If American stabilization efforts in Iraq are meant to consolidate the power of the central government, in Syria they’re meant to atomize it, using the Kurds as a foil. Washington professes support for the unity and territorial integrity of the country, but its actions on the ground suggest it’s more interested in carving out territory dominated by Kurdish forces in the northeast.

Other than some opposition diehards, no one suggests that the Raqqa region can be used as a springboard to wrest the capital from Assad and the Russians and the Iranians and their Iraqi and Lebanese allies. At best, Washington sees the creation of a Syrian rump territory dominated by Kurdish allies of the PKK and tribes, some of whom are fresh from the bad bets they placed on ISIS, as the key for postwar demands on the regime to support an ill-defined federal solution that will wrest power from the capital.

A “whole of government” effort [3] is now being marshaled by the U.S. to create an island of good governance in the 20 percent of the country liberated by Kurdish-dominated forces. Washington, like ISIS before it, is enlisting tribal leaders in this effort. Meanwhile, a flurry of  “Made in America” acronyms—notably the RCC (Raqqa Civic Council) and the Raqqa Internal Security Force (RISF)—is being established alongside the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) with U.S. goodwill and Saudi cash.

Syrians of all stripes can be forgiven for thinking that such a scheme sounds an awful lot like the French Mandate-era effort to divide and rule a series of small Druze, Alawi, and Syrian fiefdoms during the 1920s and 1930s. The French went so far as to create Alawite and Druze states, flags and all. They soon perished under the weight of what still remains the essential force in modern Syrian politics—the drive for national sovereignty and independence. Assad’s recent declaration that Raqqa would be considered “occupied,” [4] as well as Syrian dissatisfaction with Iranian and Hezbollah’s overreaching, reflect this history.

All Syrians, including the Kurds, share this nationalist legacy, which argues against a quixotic post-war U.S. effort to weaken the power of the center in favor of sectarian interests on the periphery. At the appropriate time, when the Kurds in eastern Syria, whose dream of independence has been dashed on all fronts, will make their way back to Damascus. In key respects they have never left. Unlike many in the Opposition, they are prepared to attend the Sochi conference, continuing an uneasy engagement with Damascus about governance that is as old as the modern Syrian state.

Notwithstanding the current U.S. fascination with the Kurds’ separatist prospects, the best future for all Syrians lies in a unified country under conditions in which a government in Damascus is strong enough to make concessions in their favor.

Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "Washington Relegated to Bystander Status in Syria Talks"

#1 Comment By Face Card On November 13, 2017 @ 10:50 pm

“Russian President Vladimir Putin has defined Russian objectives clearly and resolutely, and marshaled inferior resources with skill and determination—much to the consternation of Washington.”

We don’t have diplomats any more. After Bush II, Obama/Hillary, and now Trump, where we used to have diplomats there are now whiny little neocons and neolibs who threaten military force if they don’t get their way. So, over time, those we deal with have come to ignore our “diplomats” altogether and deal to the extent possible either with the commander-in-chief or directly with the military itself.

#2 Comment By Whine Merchant On November 14, 2017 @ 12:51 am

Kim-il-Trump did say he would keep the US out of foreign entanglements, and has de-resourced the State Dept to do just that.
Anyway, Netanyahu speaks for the US now, especially in that region of the world. AIPAC will tell Jarred what to say to his father-in-law and will instruct Nikki Haley how to vote in the UN.

#3 Comment By Mark Thomason On November 14, 2017 @ 7:14 am

Bystander? The US lost that war. It is relegated to the defeated power at the peace talks.

#4 Comment By Christian Chuba On November 14, 2017 @ 7:34 am

The Russians have had the longest and most consistent strategy as enunciated on 60 Minutes on Charlie Rose’s interview days before their bombing campaign.
[5] [click the equal sign to see the transcript at the 10:42 – 15:20 mark]
paraphrasing, ‘we are in Syria to help the legitimate govt of Syria fight all terrorists including ISIS and Al Nusra, to prevent the collapse of govt institutions, and to encourage them to reach out to the healthy portions of the opposition to institute political reform’.

Astana, deconfliction zones, a new constitution, this is all consistent with their original stated goals. We are still in ‘Information War’ mode trying to play spoiler and making claims about their intentions that they never said.

Maybe you hate what the Russians are doing because you are immersed in the stream of ‘Assad the barrel bomber’ MSM coverage, fine, but there never was a pledge to only bomb ISIS as stated by our Pentagon and State Dept.

#5 Comment By Michael Kenny On November 14, 2017 @ 8:43 am

Nothing in human affairs is ever “decisive”! In this particular case, all Putin has got for his efforts is to bog himself down irreversibly in Syria.The more he “leads” the process, the more he is stuck with the task of leading it! The US can lower the boom on him at any time by simply re-launching the war. In addition, how can a country have “national sovereignty and independence” when a foreign country determines who rules it?

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On November 14, 2017 @ 8:51 am

Put simply, our elites’ policy is divide and conquer in pursuit of maximizing their own interests.

#7 Comment By SDS On November 14, 2017 @ 10:12 am

“In addition, how can a country have “national sovereignty and independence” when a foreign country determines who rules it?”

Now; just contemplate that sentence for a bit….in the context it was made…and others….

#8 Comment By God help us On November 14, 2017 @ 11:02 am

Let’s summarize. The strategy of the US, which has failed, was based on the need to destroy Syria in order to save it. The Russians decided to just go ahead and save it. Fiendishly clever of them.

In response to this dire situation, which threatens to leave Syria in a position of not being completely destroyed, our tireless neocons and their military friends continue to scheme and plot in the ruins of Raqqa. Make us proud, guys.

#9 Comment By Stakeout On November 14, 2017 @ 11:42 am

“We don’t have diplomats any more. “

But we do have courtiers.

“We are still in ‘Information War’ mode trying to play spoiler and making claims about their intentions that they never said.”

I wish it had that level of coherence. Respecting Syria we’re mostly struggling to put into words our latest understanding of what the Israelis and Saudis want us to say – but the Israelis and Saudis can’t get it together, so we end up contradicting ourselves and looking stupid.

If we’d only cut the Israelis and Saudis loose and act in our own interest things might improve. Then again, as a commenter noted above, we don’t have diplomats to pursue our peaceful interests anymore, only soldiers, and it’s the rare soldier who makes a competent diplomat.

#10 Comment By Cynthia McLean On November 14, 2017 @ 1:06 pm

Regime Change does not make for a viable US foreign policy, no matter how many bombs are dropped and how many quislings are bribed.

#11 Comment By b. On November 14, 2017 @ 2:06 pm

The “democracy vs. autocracy” framing has always been a misrepresentation. The US oligarchy is split between the war profiteers and those that do not – witness Koch-funded criticism of “generational” warfare aka decades of attrition. But the autocrats in Russia and China, despite their long-standing conflicts of interest, are united behind a concept of international order that ensures the continuity of their nation states.

From the Balkans onwards – that is, the hasty recognition of some of a sovereign nation’s civil war parties – Russia and China have always taken the position that sovereignty and continuity of all states is the foundation of the international order. This is certainly hypocritical, but it is also consistent with prioritizing domestic stability over democratic participation. Neither nation endorses “nation building”, especially if involves the “creative” destruction of an existing nation. In this, and despite their willingness to lean on other, weaker nations, Russia and China take a conservative position – no matter how flawed, incompetent, or even vile and existing government, its persistence is preferable to a complete breakdown of order. Whatever the merits, in the past, this also used to be the guiding “principle” for US alliances with authoritarian governments, dictators, torturers and tyrants across the globe.

In the eyes of Russia and China it is the USA that has become the dominant force eroding the international order, violating the foundations of the Peace of Westphalia and the UN Charter, and quite possibly doing so in a “scorched earth” policy which, by accident or by design, strives to transform states that fail to comply with US dictates or accommodate US business interests into failed states that are unable to offer meaningful resistance. This view is consistent with the single-minded fixation of US foreign policy “elites” past their prime with nations like Iran or North Korea which not only continue to resist escalating US attempts at coercion, but instead succeed at acquiring the means to resist “all measures short of war”, and ultimately even “kinetic” intervention. This is not a policy of “divide and conquer”, but a doctrine of peer prevention that brooks no sovereignty other than that of the US – something Russia and China clearly understand is ultimately aimed at them.

Per US, the “dominos” were always meant to fall towards the East. Why else engage in “nation building” in Syria in an effort that looks more ridiculous, and just as vile, as the Saudi undertaking in Yemen?

For Putin, it makes perfect sense to secure the institutions of government before contemplating reform. Whatever else, Russia knows what revolutions bring, whereas the US experienced a colonial dispute between elites gone native and elites at a remote seat of government, an opportunistic revolt to reduce taxation. Americans might find themselves more understanding of Russian and Chinese concerns if they chose to remember the US Civil War, and then attempt to relate it to the tortured history of both of those great nations. There is a reason that Russia and China appear to be concerned with upholding the international order, hypocrites and criminals included, whereas the US appears to be set on enforcing its own “cultural revolution” on every fragile polity on this globe, for domestic profit and regardless of the staggering cost to others.

In the meantime, the Kurds have no reason to open themselves to another US betrayal. Who knows, Putin, might actually deliver. We would do well to remember that governance begins with the thugs that set aside their own profit to deliver. In the US, we see how governance ends – with thugs of varying sophistication that really have no concern left for others, including their own. If organized violence is the origin of government, inbred wealth is its end – both are “taxing”, but only one of them is competent to deliver.

#12 Comment By peter On November 14, 2017 @ 3:30 pm

In a way, this situation shows how counterproductive is the anti-Putin and anti-Russian obsession of the establishment.
But then – do they care?
We pay the costs…they just feel important…

#13 Comment By meow On November 14, 2017 @ 4:11 pm

This was a civil war. Along with our handlers in Israel and their cheerleaders here, we backed the wrong side. The moral of this story – stop listening to AIPAC and Netanyahu and get the hades out of the Middle East. Make the round-heel Congress declare war in future and institute a no cut draft.

#14 Comment By wise_pharaoh On November 14, 2017 @ 4:13 pm

@Face Card

“We don’t have diplomats any more. After Bush II, Obama/Hillary,”

I follow current events quite closely. Unlike Ms. Palin, I read and listen to the NYT, Washington Post, Faux News, right wing talk radio, left wing talk radio, NPR, BBC, TAC and a myriad of other outlets.
What evidence do you have to substantiate that Bush II, Hillary and Obama, gutted the state department?

We do have clear evidence that Trump via Rex Tillerson have not staffed the state department.

Just Curious?????

#15 Comment By Whine Merchant On November 14, 2017 @ 7:17 pm

@wise-pharaoh re: Face Card
“What evidence do you have to substantiate that Bush II, Hillary and Obama, gutted the state department?
We do have clear evidence that Trump via Rex Tillerson have not staffed the state department.”

Face Card is just spouting the Newt Gingrich party line of ‘Democrats bad – GOP good’. No basis in fact, just ‘thruthy alternative facts’, like the columns and comments at Faux.

I have noticed in the last month or so creeping NR-type outrage creeping into TAC comments.

#16 Comment By Lenny On November 14, 2017 @ 8:50 pm

No drama Obama never had a policy i Syria and this is the outcome.
Putin’s dream will come crashing once Israel launch a full scale assault on Syria and Lebanon to drive the Iranians out. The Iranian threat is real and Israelis are not blind or stupid

#17 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 14, 2017 @ 9:26 pm

Hmmmmm . . . since I am not a card carrying, knee-jerk non-interventionist, I will slip in here that there are times when intervention is required — rare I suspect, but there are times when that may very well be the case.

1. strict humanitarian missions – starvation, natural disasters, etc.

2. Genocide . . .

3. in response to international allied agreements

Syria did not qualify and once again, Pres Putin looks like the reasonable man and astute diplomat by our missteps.

#18 Comment By mf On November 14, 2017 @ 9:36 pm

spite for the US and worship of every dictator. A new hallmark of an American Conservative.

sit back, and pass the popcorn.

#19 Comment By Disentangler In Chief On November 14, 2017 @ 10:37 pm

Bystander status sounds good to me. Really good. In fact, I recommend bystander status with regard to the Middle East region as a whole.

Stand off and watch. That’s us! (Or rather, it should be us …)

#20 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 15, 2017 @ 2:48 am

“spite for the US and worship of every dictator. A new hallmark of an American Conservative.”

Syria is a sovereign state, and nothing about our involvement there has any justification. And the larger point is that the US could ave been the leader in this region of diplomatic success, instead we are responsible for needlessly upending the region.

Furthermore, this is a tough case to make when we were neck deep in supporting the needles violet revolution in the Ukraine. violent

#21 Comment By Dieter Heymann On November 15, 2017 @ 9:32 am

In the context of “Assad must go (now)” Obama and Trump are the big losers.

#22 Comment By Face Card On November 15, 2017 @ 10:43 am

“What evidence do you have to substantiate that Bush II, Hillary and Obama, gutted the state department? “

I didn’t say that Bush II, Hillary/Obama gutted the State Department with respect to staffing. I said we don’t have diplomats anymore. Two different things. In fact, Hillary hired lots of people. But she hired people like Victoria “F*** the EU” Nuland. Who isn’t a diplomat, in my view. And she built the most expensive embassy in the world in Baghdad, but it’s a white elephant, a bizarre, bunker-like curiosity, not a real diplomatic post.

Where we used to have diplomats, we now have something more like what the USSR had during the Cold War – thugs, hirelings, stupid ideologues. We don’t have the people who study the countries they deal with, learn their languages and history, who listen, speak thoughtfully, practice politesse, and report intelligently and honestly. Instead we have largely ignorant jerks, cheats, and liars who barge into wherever and start issuing demands and throwing money and weapons around and write reports containing whatever absurd BS they think the boss wants to read. You can call that diplomacy if you like. I don’t.

#23 Comment By God help us On November 15, 2017 @ 10:57 am

What Face Card said.

#24 Comment By Free On November 15, 2017 @ 3:58 pm

“In addition, how can a country have “national sovereignty and independence” when a foreign country determines who rules it?”

No doubt a question Washington’s victims around the world have asked themselves.

#25 Comment By Youknowho On November 16, 2017 @ 8:51 am

Considering that the US has played bull in the china shop in Syria, it is a good thing that it is in the sidelines now.