Baku, Azerbaijan, Oct. 1
By Edward Haley, W.M. Keck Foundation Professor of International Strategic Studies (emeritus) at Claremont McKenna College
In his speech at the United Nations President Obama made clear that the United States is willing to negotiate with the existing Syrian government provided that Syrian president Bashar al-Asad leaves eventually. Rather than prolong the agony of the Syrian people, Vladimir Putin ought to accept Obama's concession as the starting point for negotiations.
Obama's confirmation of the shift in American policy is a major concession that could stop the killing in Syria and unify the fight against Islamic State. Putin's answer at the UN and elsewhere has been to refuse any compromise that would overthrow Asad, trusting that the limited U.S. and European bombing and rebel weakness and the hesitations of Sunni states and their lack of capability will not put him in danger. He is as wrong about this as Obama is about the adequacy of current American strategy.
Their current policies differ profoundly. Obama is bombing Islamic State strongholds in Iraq and Syria, and training Iraqi and Kurdish forces and Syrian anti-Asad rebels, with and without the support of Iraq and Iran. Putin has escalated his country's military support for Syrian president Bashar Asad, whose main opponents have always been the Syrian people, not the Islamic State, and Russia has just concluded an intelligence sharing agreement with Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
While repugnant, Putin's expectations are at least clear. He believes that Russia's efforts to solidify its gains in Damascus, Teheran, and Baghdad will endure and that the coalition of Sunni and European governments led by the United States will fail.
What Obama expects is far less evident. A more obvious whack-a-mole strategy is hard to conceive than the current U.S.-led bombing of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. If victory is defined as the destruction of the Islamic State and the creation of peace and reconciliation in Syria, Obama's strategy promises at best not to lose.
Negotiations on Syria cannot succeed in a vacuum and, ideally, ought to take place as part of a regional conference involving all the states of the region and the major external powers, essentially the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, the same group that played such a crucial role in bringing about the nuclear disarmament agreement with Iran.
At the broader conference many issues and insecurities could be addressed leading, perhaps, to some important agreements, but above all bringing the Syrian conflict to a close and establishing a pattern of regional diplomacy that could become the basis for ongoing cooperation in this troubled and tormented part of the world.
As part of the reestablishment of unity and tolerance war criminals would be investigated and prosecuted by Syrians under the aegis of the International Criminal Court.
Russia has used the conflict in Syria to provide the pretext for strengthening its ties with Iraq and Iran as well as Syria. As part of its preparations for the conference, the United States and its European allies should take similar steps to strengthen their support for all the friendly states in the region.