In his joint press conference with David Cameron this morning, Barack Obama asserted that the reason Moscow doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the White House on Syria is because of the Cold War. “I don't think it’s any secret that there remains lingering suspicions between Russia and other members of the G8 or the West,” said Obama. “It's been several decades now since Russia transformed itself and the Eastern Bloc transformed itself. But some of those suspicions still exist.”
Apparently, Obama is not able, or willing, to acknowledge that the views of the White House and Russia on Syria are different not because the vestigial enmity of the Cold War has driven a stake through the heart of international concord, but simply because the national interests of the two countries are different. But that’s assuming they really are different. In fact, the most palpable difference is that Vladimir Putin is clear about what he wants in Syria while Obama is not. Of the many reasons offered for Putin’s refusal to abandon Bashar al-Assad, perhaps the most significant is this—why should he let the White House walk away with a cheap victory in toppling Assad when it costs Moscow just as little to block Obama and keep Assad in place?
It is Putin’s clarity as well as his intransigence that has made the Kremlin, not the White House, the main address for anyone wanting to discuss Syria. On Friday, U.N. secretary general Ban Ki Moon will visit Russia as the latest in a line of interlocutors who have sought Moscow’s guidance on Syria, including Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jordan’s foreign minister Nasser Judeh, David Cameron, as well as John Kerry. Putin made Kerry wait for three hours to see him last week, but Kerry got what he came for—a joint peace conference Russia to be convened some time within the next month.
The Obama administration does not wish to prejudice the outcome of the talks. Kerry said that it’s impossible for him as an “individual” to see Assad ruling Syria in the future, but that’s not for him to decide. But what Kerry feels as “individual” is immaterial. As the Obama administration’s top diplomat, it is Kerry’s job to represent and help implement the president’s policy, which Obama clearly articulated in August 2011—Assad must step aside. Maybe Kerry’s problem is that it’s not clear the president feels that way any longer.
Indeed, during today’s press conference, Obama seemed to be walking back his demands that Assad leave. Obama explained that the goal now is to “broker a peaceful political transition that leads to Assad’s departure but a state in Syria that is still intact.” In other words, as the Russians have long contended, Assad’s departure is not a precondition for any political settlement. Instead, says Putin, negotiations will lead to a process at the end of which the various stakeholders can decide who’s going to rule Syria—Assad or someone else. In short, the White House has made the Russian position its own.
With the bombings this weekend in Reyhanli, a Turkish city close to the Syrian border, that killed 46, Assad handed the Russians a stack of chips to be used at the peace conference on his behalf. If Assad can’t retaliate against Israel for the two strikes on Damascus targeting Iranian weapons, he can still make life difficult for other American allies, like Turkey. This is Assad’s bargaining position, which the Russians will have little trouble representing: Sure, tell yourself that at the end of the transition, all the stakeholders in Syria will decide that Assad must step aside, or everyone but Assad himself. And if you try to force him out, he’ll light up the region, starting with your allies Turkey and Jordan.
The Washington Post’s report this weekend shows that Assad’s troops, with help from Iran, Hezbollah, and the Iranian-trained popular militias, are on the offensive, joins other assessments arguing that a man once believed destined to lose his regime and perhaps his life as well may win. “Did the US dither on Syria long enough to let him win?” asks Post reporter, Liz Sly in a tweet. “Was that the point?” Regardless, if Assad makes it—a man whose demise White House officials once thought was a matter of when, not if—owes a debt of gratitude not just to Iran and Russia, but also Obama.