Us­ing our lever­age in Syria

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY DENNIS ROSS

Pres­i­den­tObama­has been con­sis­tent on Syria. Even when I was in the ad­min­is­tra­tion, the pres­i­dent made clear that he did not want to get dragged into the con­flict there. The legacy of Iraq weighed heav­ily on him. He was elected to get us out of Mid­dle East wars, not into them. He was not go­ing to get in­volved in “some­one else’s civil war.”

But what if that civil war pro­duced a hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe? What if it cre­ated a mas­sive refugee cri­sis? What if it threat­ened to desta­bi­lize neigh­bor­ing states? What if it gave rise to a group like the Is­lamic State? These ques­tions were not con­sid­ered be­cause the fear of be­ing dragged into a quag­mire was so great. The costs of ac­tion al­ways de­ter­mined the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ap­proach, not the costs of in­ac­tion.

It is noth­ing new for Obama to chal­lenge those who think the Ira­ni­ans or Rus­sians are gain­ing in Syria as they act and we do the min­i­mum. In March 2014, he said, “I am al­ways darkly amused by this no­tion that some­how Iran has won in Syria. . . . This was their one friend in the Arab world . . . an­dit is now in rub­ble. It’s bleed­ing them be­cause they’re hav­ing to send in bil­lions of dol­lars. . . . They’re los­ing as much as any­one. The Rus­sians [too] find their one friend in the re­gion in rub­ble and dele­git­imized.”

Eigh­teen months later, Obama thinks lit­tle has changed. In his news con­fer­ence last week, he said, “An at­tempt by Rus­sia and Iran to prop up [Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-] As­sad and try to pacify the pop­u­la­tion is just go­ing to get them stuck in a quag­mire, and it won’t work.” Per­haps, but the Rus­sians and the Ira­ni­ans ap­pear to have some­thing quite dif­fer­ent in mind: They are not try­ing to pacify the pop­u­la­tion. They want to en­sure that dic­ta­tor As­sad main­tains at least a mini-state that con­trols Damascus and re­mains con­nected to Le­banon and the Mediter­ranean Sea and that, if at some point there is a po­lit­i­cal process to bring the con­flict to anend, the facts on the ground will both pre­serve their in­ter­ests and en­sure that they will be ar­biters of any out­come.

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin knows how to fill a vac­uum. The Ira­ni­ans are mas­ters at us­ing prox­ies to pre­serve their hold in Syria and the con­duit to Le­banon — even as they weaken cen­tral au­thor­ity in Iraq. What is in­ter­est­ing is that Qasem Soleimani, com­man­der of the Ira­nian Quds Force, trav­eled to Moscow shortly af­ter the nu­clear deal with Iran was fi­nal­ized. No doubt, Putin and Soleimani sawthe need to act mil­i­tar­ily to shore up As­sad’s weak­en­ing po­si­tion and to deal a set­back to the non-Is­lamic State op­po­si­tion, which was gain­ing in the north and the south of Syria.

To be sure, both also saw ad­di­tional util­ity in ratch­et­ing up their mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tions at this junc­ture. For Soleimani and Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, such a move would val­i­date their rev­o­lu­tion­ary, “re­sis­tance” ide­ol­ogy in the af­ter­math of agree­ing to the nu­clear deal with the United States. For Putin, the Rus­sian in­ter­ven­tion could be planned while the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion was pre­oc­cu­pied with selling the nu­clear deal — and have the added ben­e­fit of putting the Rus­sians back on cen­ter stage in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Nei­ther the Rus­sians nor the Ira­ni­ans think they are los­ing in the re­gion, and nei­ther do the Is­raelis, Egyp­tians, Saudis, Turks, Qataris or Emi­ratis. They­may not all like what the Rus­sians are do­ing, but they see the need to deal with them. Is it pos­si­ble that they are all wrong and Obama is right?

Maybe, but if our re­sponse to what the Rus­sians and Ira­ni­ans are do­ing in Syria is lim­ited to in­creas­ing our at­tacks on the Is­lamic State, which ap­pears to be where we are headed, we will be play­ing the Rus­sians’ and Ira­ni­ans’ game. They will con­tinue at­tack­ing the non-Is­lamic State op­po­si­tion while we tar­get the ter­ror­ist group, and we will, un­for­tu­nately, ap­pear to be in league with them against the Sun­nis. Any hope of hav­ing the Sun­nis dis­credit the Is­lamic State will be lost un­der these cir­cum­stances.

While the pres­i­dent may be­moan hear­ing only “half-baked” ideas as an al­ter­na­tive, he should be leery of con­tin­u­ing to im­ple­ment half-mea­sures. So here is one idea that is premised on shar­ing the bur­den — some­thing im­por­tant to Obama— but also guided by the logic of lever­age, which is the logic that guides Putin. Qui­etly go to the Turks, Saudis, Qataris and Euro­peans and say that it is time to cre­ate a gen­uine safe haven along the Turk­ish-Syr­ian bor­der. The Turks and the Gulf states have clam­ored for this, andthe Euro­peans need it to stanch the flow of refugees. Ex­plain thatwe will do our part to en­force the “no-fly” des­ig­na­tion, but only if Europe par­tic­i­pates with its air forces, Tur­key agrees to po­lice the area on the ground to pre­vent any Is­lamic State in­fil­tra­tion, and Saudi Ara­bia and Qatar agree both to fi­nance the in­fra­struc­ture for the refugees and ac­cept that all ma­te­rial as­sis­tance for train­ing op­po­si­tion forces in the zone will go through us. Pro­vided they all agree and we are able to work out the terms, we would pro­ceed and the pres­i­dent could tell Putin pri­vately in the kind of lan­guage he com­pre­hends: Don’t test the safe haven.

If we are to af­fect Rus­sian and Ira­nian be­hav­ior in Syria, we have to be­gin to play by rules they un­der­stand. Iron­i­cally, it might just get oth­ers to fol­low our lead and make the po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion we seek more likely.

The writer, a coun­selor and fel­low at the Washington In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy, was a spe­cial as­sis­tant to Pres­i­dent Obama from 2009 to 2011. His book “Doomed to Suc­ceed: The U.S.- Is­raeli Re­la­tion­ship from Tru­man to Obama” will be pub­lished Oct. 13.

If our re­sponse is lim­ited to in­creas­ing at­tacks on the Is­lamic State, which seems to be where we’re headed, we’ll be play­ing the Rus­sians’ and Ira­ni­ans’ game.

ALEXAN­DER KOTS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Syr­ian sol­diers load how­itzers dur­ing an of­fen­sive aided by Rus­sian airstrikes.

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