Continuing a pattern repeated elsewhere, things in Syria aren't exactly going America's way. Fortunately for those still seeking peace, what happens next isn't just up to President Obama. Nor, despite the administration's struggles, is it up to Russia or Iran. There's still time for the Syrians themselves to determine their own future. That's why, despite many good reasons for cynicism around the Syrian peace talks, it's important to forge ahead.
At this late date, Americans could be excused a little skepticism about the prospects of the negotiations taking place between Iran and Russia on one side and the U.S. and its allies on the other.
After all, President Obama's Syria policy has left scant room for optimism. With all the ingenuity of a #SlatePitch, the White House doggedly insists that Russian military intervention on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime is actually a good thing. At a Bahrain security conference, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted that it "will increase Russia's leverage over Assad" — but also "increase the conflict's leverage over Russia," creating a "compelling incentive for Russia to work for, not against, a political transition."
To critics, this is the kind of self-flattering overthink that's earned the administration so few dividends in the region. In an editorial, The Wall Street Journal excoriated Blinken's logic. The same team "surprised by Vladimir Putin's takeover of Crimea, surprised by his invasion of eastern Ukraine, surprised by his plan to sell S-300 missiles to Iran, and surprised by his intervention in Syria," it groaned, "now thinks the Russian strongman will sue for peace in Syria on U.S. terms and oust Bashar Assad." Obama's sharpest critics are especially galled by the White House's evident belief that Russia might even talk Iran into giving up its die-hard support for Assad, their most valuable puppet.
But the conditions on the ground, grim as they are, help illustrate the case for hope.
Only an extraordinary capitulation by the U.S. and its Arab allies would allow Russia and Iran to wipe out the moderate rebels opposing the regime. Yet U.S. military action also cannot dislodge Assad without plunging Syria deeper into chaos: a repeat of our disastrous approach in Libya. That's because the key to Syrian peace is not really Assad, but his regime — which could, if allowed, persist in modified form in a post-Assad world, fighting off ISIS and bringing Syria back from the brink of complete chaos.
The administration's critics, unnerved by President Obama's passive, reactive track record, fear that he's too weak to guide the regime toward reconciliation and representative government while scrapping Assad. When they see U.S. negotiators give Iran a seat at the table and signal support for slow-walking Assad's departure, they sense their dire predictions are coming true. And in some ways, they might be right. Sure, logic suggests that Putin should accept some regime continuity with or without Assad. But we don't really want to bet our Mideast strategy on Putin's embrace of logic. If we want a unity government in Syria that brings peace without throwing itself at the feet of our foes, we need a firmer foundation than that.
There's really just one place to find that foundation: the Syrian people themselves. Though badly fractured, Syrians know the path they're on leads only to even greater death and destruction — with or without foreign intervention. And perhaps most importantly, Syrian supporters of the regime likely know how much they can gain by letting go of Assad and his form of rule. Helping rebel groups find agreement on a post-Assad blueprint may not be easy — accepting regime members into a post-Assad government will require a lot of forbearance — but the alternatives are far worse.
If the Syrian people can agree to avoid Iraq's fate by dumping their despot without waging war on their institutional history, they will have taken a big step towards lasting peace.
Of course, such a relatively happy ending is far from assured. But whatever Team Obama's foibles, Americans should note with cautious optimism that the most important negotiations about Syria won't take place in a room filled with international diplomats. They'll take place in a room full of Syrians.