Ever since Russia began stepping up its technical and logistical support for Bashar al-Assad’s forces at Latakia, Washington has insisted that Moscow’s intentions “aren’t yet clear.”
Essentially, that’s the excuse the US is giving for why it won’t join Russia in what would ultimately amount to an all-out push to rout ISIS in Syria.
The problem with that excuse, is that it creates a problem in terms of how the public perceives the situation. That is, the more explicit the Kremlin became about its aims in Syria, the harder it became for The White House to explain why the US isn’t on board.
The West has gone to great lengths to create a bogeyman par excellence in ISIS and it has, from the public’s perspective anyway, largely succeeded. However, Russia’s presence in Syria now means that the US will no longer be able to sit back and wait for ISIS (or anyone else for that matter) to overrun Assad. Russian military intervention has effectively taken that eventuality off the table, putting Washington in the extremely awkward position of having to either i) explain to the public that in fact Assad and Russia are the greater threats and therefore it’s in the US’s geopolitical interests to see if ISIS can finish the job even with the Russians on the ground, or ii) cave and admit privately that unless the US intends to go to war with Russia, Assad, and ISIS all at once, achieving the original goal (i.e. routing ISIS once ISIS routs Assad) is no longer possible, and say publicly that the US is willing to partner with Russia to defeat ISIS and the two nations will then negotiate for the future of the Assad regime.
To be clear, the first option is obviously a no-go because it blows the entire charade wide open.
As for the second option, as of Friday, it’s now in play. Here’s The New York Times:
Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday that the United States was prepared to engage in military-to-military talks with Russiaconcerning Syria.
“The president believes that a military-to-military conversation is an important next step,” Mr. Kerry said, “and I think, hopefully, it will take place very shortly.”
The initial purpose of the talks with Russia, Mr. Kerry said, will be to help “define some of the different options that are available to us as we consider next steps in Syria.”
Mr. Kerry said that the Obama administration would not change its basic goals in Syria: The defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and a political solution for the conflict there.
But though the administration has long said that President Bashar al-Assad must go for there to be a durable solution to the Syria crisis, Mr. Kerry seemed on Friday to allow for the possibility that Mr. Assad might remain in power in the short term. Mr. Assad has had Russia’s backing throughout the conflict.
“Our focus remains on destroying ISIL and also on a political settlement with respect to Syria, which we believe cannot be achieved with a long-term presence of Assad,” Mr. Kerry said. “But we’re looking for ways in which to try to find a common ground. Clearly, if you’re going to have a political settlement, which we have always argued is the best and only way to resolve Syria, you need to have conversations with people, and you need to find a common ground.”
And so, two years (nearly to the day) after Kerry folded to Sergei Lavrov over Assad's chemical weapons stash (the pretext for the original attempt to justify ousting Assad by military force), the US looks set to fold again.
Note that if Russia ends up negotiating for Assad to remain in power, all of this will have been for nothing. Make no mistake, none of it was "justified" in the first place. Engineering a civil war by funding and training extremists knowing that the resultant chaos will cost the lives of countless civilians would be deplorable even if the regime one sought to overthrow was unequivocally evil and the outcome was 100% certain. In Syria however, what you have is another example of a Mid-East strongman being destabilized by the West only to find that i) the human suffering brought on by the fighting and the chaos that reigns in its aftermath is far worse than the oppression the people suffered under the regime's rule, and ii) the outcome is far from certain and in this case, it appears that thanks to Russia, Assad isn't going anywhere.
So at the end of the day, hundreds of thousands of lives will have been wasted only to see the very same regime in power, only now, mutliple violent extremist groups that otherwise might not have existed will likely be present in one form or another in the region for decades to come.
Another US foreign policy success story.