Two people – Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin – now have the power decisively to cut through the tragic Gordian knot that the Syrian crisis has become, generating millions of displaced refugees with many more in prospect as civil war continues. They could only do this, if they were genuinely to agree to work cooperatively, as they briefly attempted some years ago, before a new Cold War descended on Europe. Aided by their competent Foreign Ministers, John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, Obama and Putin could together end the Syrian agony.
My proposal here may at first sight seem utopian, but all else has failed, and the world is now on a road to increasing war in the Middle East, and rising NATO-Russia tensions generally. The world needs new thinking.
Australia could yet, perhaps under a new prime minister, become a voice of reason in the Western alliance. First we would need to shed stubborn mental stereotypes that have lately taken root throughout the NATO world.
In Syria, they are all baddies: or all goodies, depending on where you start. True, the Assad regime’s deaths count against rebelling forces and civilian collateral damage caught in the crossfire of civil war is appalling. But from Assad’s point of view – and he is loyally supported by Putin’s Russia and by Iran on this – he is rightly defending his legitimate national government against insurrection. As did Abraham Lincoln. As Sisi is doing in Egypt. As Milosevic in Yugoslavia and Gaddafi in Libya tried unsuccessfully to do.
The opposition forces in Syria are all now, from a Western liberal point of view, baddies – Islamic State being certainly the worst. But it is no secret that these extremist jihadist groups are being bankrolled and armed by America’s wealthy Sunni allies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. And the main agenda in Syria of Ershad’s Turkey, America’s NATO ally, is to contain renascent Kurdish national aspirations which it fears, if necessary by impeding the Kurdish assault on ISIS.
As long as the West goes on talking the tired language of Assad and IS being twin evils, but that the more “immediate” need is to confront and contain the evil of ISIS and other jihadist movements, Russia and Shia Iran will continue militarily to support Assad as – as they see it – still the best chance for a restoration of a harmonious secular, multiconfessional Syrian state. The Assad regime (father and son, from the minority Islamic Alawite community), though far from perfect, for decades maintained a regime that provided peace, security and relative prosperity to all Syria’s multiconfessional communities.
Obama and Putin could and should now agree on a policy road map to propose a jointly chaired peace conference on the Syrian crisis. At such a conference, properly prepared by the co-hosts, Putin could bring Assad and Iran into line: as long as he could reassure them that Obama was equally determined to end covert support for ISIS and its ilk by Saudi Arabia, Gulf States, and Turkey.
This would be a bigger policy stretch for Obama than for Putin. Obama has throughout his presidency talked the language of Western liberalism in the Middle East. But the US tacitly accepted in Egypt that the Arab spring is over; it supported the restoration of Sisi’s firm authoritarian government there as a bulwark against disruptive Islamic fundamentalism. Without too much eating of humble pie in the final year of his presidency, Obama could achieve peace in Syria if he genuinely stretches out a cooperative hand and works with Putin.
The signs are that Putin would be ready for such a joint diplomatic effort, if the US and rest of NATO were to ease off on demonising Putin’s Russia; and were to accept that in the Syrian crisis, Russia and America share humanitarian peacemaking goals, and could genuinely work together towards mutually acceptable policy accommodations. These would almost certainly involve the Assad regime staying in power.
Then, the millions of hapless refugees stranded in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey might begin to go home and pick up the shattered pieces of their lives; and the world might begin to rest easier.
Tony Kevin, a former senior Australian diplomat, is an Emeritus Fellow at ANU and the author of four published books. He is a member of Australians for War Powers Reform.