Trudy Rubin: Russia-Syrian alliance thwarts U.S. efforts

The Philadelphia Inquirer Published:

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. That's certainly the case with the photo of beaming Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem clasping hands with grinning Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week in Moscow -- as though in a victory salute.

The two men's smiles reflect how well Moscow and Damascus (along with Tehran) have outflanked the United States and Syrian rebels before peace talks on Syria. Those talks, in Switzerland, are at the core of the U.S. "strategy" to unseat the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But, as Muallem and Lavrov well know, the American policy has failed badly.

It's past time for the White House to reassess a Syria strategy that ignores the facts on the ground.

The original goal of the peace talks, known as Geneva II, was for regime and opposition to agree on a transitional government that would eventually be followed by elections. That interim government was supposed to be approved by both sides, which guaranteed the exit of Assad, because the Syrian opposition would never accept his having any political role.

Secretary of State John Kerry insisted last week these terms were still the basis of peace talks. But Russia and Syria have made clear they disagree with Kerry, and he has little leverage to change their minds.

In a flamboyant news conference two weeks ago, Assad insisted he intended to stay in power. Without any shame, the Syrian leader claimed the conflict pitted patriots against terrorists, citizens against killers. No mention of the regime's slaughter of peaceful protesters who sought reform of a corrupt 40-year family dictatorship, or of its massive bombing, gassing, and starving of civilians.

So where does this leave the Geneva II talks? Nowhere -- unless Washington revises a strategy that keeps Assad in power.

First, the administration should relinquish its long-held illusion that rational argument will persuade Russia to ease Assad out. The Syrian regime and its allies respect strength, which Washington has failed to project.

The administration's refusal to arm non-jihadi rebels has led many of their fighters to migrate to Islamist battalions. President Obama's decision not to strike at Assad's military assets after Assad used chemical weapons convinced Syrians that Washington wants the dictator to retain power -- and discouraged high-level doubters in the Syrian military from defecting.

The delivery of nonlethal aid to rebels, now suspended, achieved little, and its resumption would have scant impact. If the administration wants Assad gone, it must rethink its refusal to help arm more moderate rebel fighters, especially groups willing to fight al-Qaida as well as Assad (and it isn't sufficient to outsource this task to the Saudis).

When it comes to seeking a humanitarian breakthrough from Geneva II, U.S. efforts also need to be more strategic. Increased humanitarian aid should be used to strengthen civilian councils that are trying to govern in rebel-held areas.

It will become obvious at Geneva whether the administration is considering upping its game, thus prodding Moscow to rethink its unlimited support for Assad. If not, Muallem and Lavrov have very good reason to smile.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at trubin@phillynews.com.

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©2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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