This article was originally published on April 17, 2017 in the Huffington Post.
If only it were so easy. The leader of a war-torn Middle Eastern country commits an atrocity; the West removes him; problem solved. At least, that’s the way Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to see the future in Syria. Last week, Trudeau asserted that Syrian president Bachar al-Assad must be excluded from any final peace agreement for that worn torn country. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland put it more bluntly, “Assad must go.”
The only problem is, in addition to the support that al-Assad enjoys among certain groups within Syria, Trudeau has also forgotten about Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Kurds, and the many other players who have a stake in what happens in Syria. What began with a boy writing anti-government graffiti in Daraa in 2011 is a full blown global crisis today.
Not a single international leader condoned the gas attack earlier this month on Khan Sheykhoun, and most hold the al-Assad government responsible. But despite the international outrage to this incident, the much broader challenge is to bring an end to Syria’s civil war. But if the response by Trump, Trudeau and Freeland is any indication, the West is ill-prepared for this intimidating task.
In fact, Trudeau’s talk is strangely reminiscent of Canada’s stance in 2012 when former UN Secretary General Koffi Annan was promoting his six point peace plan for Syria. The Harper government claimed to support the peace plan, but contradicted this by repeatedly asserting that “Assad must go.” Not a great sales pitch when al-Assad himself was the most crucial Syrian player in multi-lateral talks.
In case it’s not yet obvious, the government of Bachar al-Assad sees itself in an existential struggle, where ends justify all means. Under the status quo, the non-jihadist opposition in Syria faces a similar value proposition: win or die, as was made so clear in Aleppo. But neither side is in any position to win a decisive military victory. Even if one side did achieve nominal military dominance, post-war insurgency and terrorism would continue, both within and outside Syria’s borders. Given this baseline, there is a far greater chance of getting the West and Russia to cooperate, than in convincing the Syrian government and opposition to agree to any genuine mutual accommodation.
Despite Putin’s bristling, Russia is no more happy about the gas attack in Syria than the West. International Crisis Group interveners found Russian leaders who considered the attack a smear on Russia’s ability to maintain the 2013 UN agreement to destroy al-Assad’s chemical arms. They were also nonplused at the West’s apparent lack of appreciation for Russia’s efforts to contain the war in Syria. The conflict is as much on Russia’s doorstep as on Europe’s, and Russian leaders fear both an unreliable partner in al-Assad, and a further escalation of the conflict.
Western media tend to portray Putin and Russia’s intervention in Syria as all theatre, and indeed there are elements of diplomatic muscle flexing. But Russia also has many strategic reasons for sustaining the al-Assad regime, including a Mediterranean naval port in the Syrian city of Tartus, and an air force base in Latakia, whose 49-year lease was just signed in January of this year. In Syria, Russia also has a platform for regional influence and a forward bastion against international terrorism.
So when Trudeau and Freeland flippantly suggest that Russia should drop its relationship with the al-Assad government over the gas attack, they’re simply not being realistic. Worse, they antagonize the only potential partner in a viable long-term solution for Syria. They also may not realize that if Russia were actually to take their advice, Iran would most certainly step in to fill the void.
The West’s relationship with Russia is crucial if there’s any hope of de-escalating the Syrian civil war. Thus it was not a good omen for Syria last week when US Secretary of State Tillerson’s admitted that “there is a low level of trust between [Russia and the US.]”
A far more feasible proposition from Freeland this week was to ask Russia to force the al-Assad government to participate in political negotiations. Russia and the West must work to reduce violence between the al-Assad regime and its non-jihadist adversaries, pushing hard for an eventual ceasefire. Not only would this reduce the senseless death toll, but it would also enable a greater focus in the fight against ISIS. This would also create the time and space for a more trusting relationship between the US, Turkey and the non-jihadist opposition groups. Russia, for its part, must make clear to al-Assad that additional rogue attacks will undermine Russian support.
While it may be hard to imagine, there could be more gruesome outcomes than a chemical attack in Syria if the conflict is left adrift. Ultimately, realism must prevail between the West and Russia if there’s any hope of changing the status quo in Syria. Western leaders might find it distasteful, but the old cliché of having to make peace with enemies and not friends applies now more than ever in Syria. And if something like Khan Sheykhoun happens again, the West is far better off calling Moscow than encouraging Trump to create his own destabilizing realities.