Bashar al-Assad has a big problem. The Syrian civil war has drained his military of manpower, equipment, and morale. The Syrian dictator has been forced to retreat into Syria’s coastal west and deep south. Beyond these territories, various rebel groups are on the offensive. Syria is consumed by chaos. And today, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is meeting his Iranian opposite, Javad Zarif, to forge a “peace plan.”
To achieve a good plan — one that avoids more bloodshed and the further empowerment of ISIS and Iran — America must actively influence these proposals.
To start, exercising America’s influence is a humanitarian necessity. Ultimately, Russia sees Assad the same way it sees Iran: as a means to challenge American influence in the Middle East. Consider Russia’s looming delivery of updated S-300 missile systems to Iran. The S-300 serves Russia’s regional interests by restraining American military power. And if Russia has its way in Syria, America will again suffer. Happy to trade with Iran and unconcerned by Iran’s terrorism campaigns in the region, Russia will let Iran set the contours of any Syrian “peace deal.”
If we assess what an Iranian-led Syrian “peace deal” would entail, we can predict many problems ahead for those living under Assad’s thumb. After all, such a plan would probably involve a purge of Syrian Sunnis from Assad’s western and southern heartlands. Just this weekend, Assad killed more than 100 civilians by bombing a crowded market. As we’ve seen now for years, Assad is very comfortable slaughtering his people. Correspondingly, if America fails to demand that any agreement protect Sunni civilians in areas under Assad’s control, the dictator — with Iranian and Russian support — is likely to blitz those civilians the moment a deal is signed. And given that the Obama administration has shown very little interest in humanitarianism, Assad has little fear of incurring American anger. President Obama must alter his priorities to make room for humanitarian efforts.
In addition to the humanitarian concerns, it’s also strategically necessary that we influence any proposed peace agreements. Note that in recent months, Russia has taken advantage of America’s credibility chasm in the Middle East. Putin has strengthened Russia’s relationship with Egypt and also with Saudi Arabia; he is determined to make Russia the most influential external actor in the region. As such, if Russia is seen to broker a Syrian peace deal without American influence, U.S. credibility will plummet even further. That matters. Absent American influence, regional actors will descend ever deeper into sectarian aggression. In such a situation, the Sunni monarchies will probably support Sunni terrorists groups to counter Iran. And that would mean money flowing into the pockets of groups such as al-Qaeda. Sectarian impulses, buoyed by fear and paranoia, are always bubbling below the surface of Middle Eastern politics. Only America can prevent these impulses from boiling over.
There’s no doubt that the Syrian civil war is messy. And it’s understandable that many Americans would rather President Obama let Russia and Iran pick up the pieces. Unfortunately, they never will.
America’s involvement in peace negotiations is also necessary if we wish to defeat ISIS. While ISIS’s power is sustained by territory, wealth, and foreign jihadist recruits, it is also indirectly supported by Assad’s brutality. With hundreds of thousands of dead Sunnis lying in his wake, Assad — and his Iranian sponsors — have allowed Salafi-jihadist groups such as ISIS and al-Nusra Front to present themselves as Sunni defense forces. But if Iran holds the reins of a peace deal, Syria’s many nationalist-Islamist groups will lose far more than ISIS will. That’s because these nationalist groups are the ones most committed to opposing Assad. In contrast, ISIS tends to ignore Assad, preferring instead to carve out its central-northern caliphate.
There’s another issue here. If Assad were to engage in a post-deal purge of Sunni communities, Turkey — led by President Erdogan, who sees himself as the face of Sunni empowerment — might retaliate militarily.
Related: Why ISIS Will Attack America
There’s no doubt that the Syrian civil war is messy. And it’s understandable that many Americans would rather President Obama let Russia and Iran pick up the pieces. Unfortunately, they never will. Moreover, American passivity will only increase ISIS’s capacity and will to threaten America, while it will risk a humanitarian catastrophe.
This isn’t to say that current peace efforts in Syria are futile. If Assad accepts a cease-fire and enforceable guarantees of protection for Sunnis in areas under his control, some semblance of peace might return to Syria. At least for a while. But America must be active in pursuing this goal. Iran and Russia do not share America’s strategic and moral interests. The Obama administration must stand up for those interests or see them eviscerated.