Obama’s New Pivot to Russia on Syria and What It Means

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September 21, 2015

Yet another “pivot,” as the Obama administration insists on calling its many foreign policy reversals–this one in its strategy in Syria. In less than a week, the president did a 180, jumping on Russia for an apparent new military initiative against the Islamic State to opening “a mil to mil conversation,” as Secretary Kerry called it in London Friday, to coordinate with Moscow at defense ministry level.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but this is not the time to insist that another “regime change” is essential to defeating ISIS and stabilizing Syria after four years of civil war.

Related: Are Russian Troops In Syria? Just Look for Soldier Selfies

“Though the Obama administration has long said that Mr. Assad must go in order for there to be a durable solution to the Syria crisis,” Michael Gordon, the State Department correspondent at The New York Times, wrote from London, “Mr. Kerry allowed for the possibility that Mr. Assad might remain in power in the short term.”

This is a number of things apart from smart. It’s bitter, given the lives, years, and money wasted in pursuit of a strategy that was unwise from the first and never held much promise. It’s also troubling: This is plainly a divided administration arguing its way forward on one policy question after another—Russia, China, and the Middle East.

You have to go back to Kerry’s surprise visit to Sochi last May, when he spent seven hours talking to President Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to get this right. The encounter left no doubt that Kerry stands among those in the administration favoring negotiation over confrontation in foreign policy.

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A source in Moscow, quoting a well-placed Russian official, told me at the time that Kerry’s hours in Sochi “were 80 percent Daesh,” the Arabic for Islamic State, “10 percent Iran, 10 percent Ukraine.” I got back to this source over the weekend.

Related: Why Exactly Is Putin Sending Troops Into Syria?

“Many thought at the time that the Sochi exchange was principally about Ukraine and Iran,” he replied in an email. “No, they came at the end of the main discussions, I was told. Now you see what the Russians were preparing.”

That is exactly what you see. Kerry made a show of telephoning Lavrov with a warning of retaliation after the apparent new Russian buildup in Syria emerged a couple of weeks ago. “Show” seems just the word.

In simple terms, we appear to be watching a victory of the diplomats over the militarists inside the administration’s bifurcated foreign policy circle. As if to confirm this, a Times account last Friday has the president saying in effect, “Look, I never wanted to arm Syrian ‘freedom fighters’ in the first place. Don’t blame me now that we’ve spent $500 million to field exactly four of them against Assad.”

Related: Russian Presence in Syria Cause for Concern, NATO Chief Says

Now, the implications of this drastic turn toward cooperation with Russia are four, and there may be more on the way. Here’s what’s evident already:

• The way to a good political settlement in Syria may now be open, and there’s no more denying this can be done without Russian support. The administration is all balled up as to Moscow’s “true intentions,” but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar even if Putin is smoking it: The threat of terror is far closer to his doorstep than America’s, and he wants this crisis decisively resolved.

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Ishaan Tharoor, a foreign affairs columnist at the Washington Post, wrote a well-timed piece the other day explaining that the chance Obama and Kerry have now was available once before. Three years ago Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitali Churkin, told Martii Ahtisaari, the Finnish diplomat and Nobelist, that Assad was willing to enter talks with his adversaries and that “finding an elegant way for Assad to step aside” was a task within reach.

That was one year after war broke out, and the casualty count was less than 10,000. “Greater diplomatic efforts then could have saved countless lives and the tragic unraveling of an entire nation,” Tharoor concludes. Take the lesson, Mr. President.

• Cooperation in Syria, however circumscribed, can carry over to other questions, notably Ukraine, if the administration lets it. Emphatically it should. It must now be perfectly plain to anyone who looks that Washington has had the wrong end of the stick in Ukraine as in Syria.

Related: Failure of Syria Diplomacy Exposes Enduring Divisions Over Assad

Federalizing Ukraine is sound policy, never mind that Moscow favors it. So do Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Rome, and the European Union. Medium term, this could get the U.S. past a degree of hostility in its relations with Russia that never needed to get so out of hand.

• Washington now frets that Moscow’s intent is to gain new influence in the Middle East. It’ll take all it can get, surely, but it’s the byproduct of ending the war, in my read.

Washington’s take-home here is that its unchallenged primacy in the Middle East—a fact of life since the Suez crisis in 1956—is a thing of the past. I see this as the first fallout of the Iran nuclear deal, in which the Obama administration implicitly acknowledged that multipolar action is the key to stability across the region from here on out.

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Related: Russia to U.S.—Talk to Us on Syria or Risk ‘Unintended Incidents’

We should all be fine with this for a simple reason: It is demonstrably true. The appearance of indecision in the Obama White House almost certainly reflects the chasm between those who accept this new reality and those who stumble on it.

• If you’re going to cooperate with Moscow in Syria, you’re many steps closer to cooperating with Iran. We’d better brace for this, as it seems inevitable.

The name of the game now is defeat the Islamic State, see what can be done about Assad later. Washington’s playing new cards as of last week.

Only a couple of months ago Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was on Eastern European borders with Russia promising to escalate the NATO presence. Last week—and on Obama’s orders—it was Carter who made the ice-breaking telephone call to Sergei Shoigu, his counterpart in Moscow.

Altogether a revelatory moment, I would say.

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