The Vienna fiasco: is it time for Russia and the US to exit Syria?

Published November 5th, 2015 - 08:22 GMT

As if on cue, and just a few days after the largely ceremonial Syria peace talks conference to help resolve the ongoing civil war — when 18 foreign ministers as well as United Nations and European Union (EU) representatives gathered in Vienna on October 30, 2015 to pontificate — the Al Qaida leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri, broadcast a new recording in which he called on his followers to face a conspiracy of the “Americans, Russians, Iranians, Alawites and Hezbollah”.

While Al Zawahiri was a personality that belonged to the past and had as much influence on terrorists as Syrian President Bashar Al Assad enjoyed on the Syrian people, his plea for unity echoes traditional extremist themes, which should not be brushed aside. His calls for unity among terror groups reflected sharp differences with Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Will these differences seal Syria’s fate and can those who gathered in Vienna prevent both a prolongation of the war as well as avert a partition of the Syrian state?

After nearly five years when leading western powers opted to watch Syrians destroy their country, kill each other in droves and, worse, allow outsiders to determine their destiny, Russia opted to up the ante as it started an aerial bombardment of various sites on September 30, 2015. Even if Moscow targeted Daesh, which was not the case, what the Russian attacks allowed — just like ongoing western coalition assaults — were to assist pro-regime ground forces to regroup and renew their offensives against their own nationals.

This intervention, along with ground offensive by Syrian, Iranian, Iraqi and Hezbollah forces, sharply reduced threats against a beleaguered regime that was on the verge of collapse. Yet, because Russia was not about to place boots on the ground, its air assaults were not game changers and literally ensured that the war would extend for another few years. Of course, some changes on the ground were bound to occur, though nothing to suggest that a final military coup de grace would be forthcoming anytime soon. On the contrary, Russian President Vladimir Putin may have hoped that his military intervention would accelerate a moribund political process but, comically, what he and his Vienna partners envisaged were “elections” in a largely destroyed country with half of its population living as refugees.

Ironically, challenged diplomats who suggested and continue to toot the horn of choosing between dictators and terrorist groups like Daesh masterfully missed the point. Some went so far as to recommend that the only way out of the Syria quagmire was through a legislative process, which added insult to injury, unaware of, or oblivious to, conditions on the ground. The most egregious perspective, expounded by none other than the EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, implied that the Russian intervention in Syria was neither positive nor negative. These words were seriously unwise, but paled in comparison when she described the Vienna talks as “historic” and “very substantial”, thereby diminishing the values of both historic and substantial developments.

Truth be told, all that was agreed to in Vienna last Friday was to “explore the modalities of a nationwide ceasefire” as well as asking the United Nations to oversee a revision of the country’s constitution, presumably with the intention of holding new elections. Which part of these were “historic” and “very substantial”? When is the EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy going to become serious?

Vienna was a fiasco and both US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, two men with experience and gravitas who know the consequences of their errors, were fully aware of the damage done. While the world should rejoice that everyone was finally inclined to restart the political process to try and bring the five-year old war to an end, what prevented a felicitous outcome were not mysterious. Iran and Saudi Arabia insisted on specific solutions with both countries locked in intractable positions and, equally important, Russia and the US engaged in classic proxy wars. In fact, and sadly, the Putin military intervention in Syria illustrated that the two-decade old partnership between Moscow and Washington was relegated to the dustbin of history, as neither aspired to maintain the post-Second World War entente.

By encouraging the rise of Iran as a new pole of influence in the Middle East, Moscow and Washington clearly reverted to the hugely ineffective League of Nations model that, regrettably, did not promote international peace. The organisation that replaced it on October 24, 1945, to effectively prevent another World War, the UN, functioned relatively well when the two leading powers agreed to maintain international security. Yet, and while Russia lost its status as a global power after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its interests were not served by antagonising the US or engaging in proxy wars. How could Russia return to its preeminence if it sacrificed its partnership with the US?

The Vienna fiasco illustrates that both Washington and Moscow ought to get out of the Syrian kitchen though the burden is on Russia to emphasise that its core interests are liberty, freedom and democratisation too. Short of that, everyone, especially the Russian leaders, ought to prepare to deal with Daesh and various mutant Daeshites.

By Joseph A. Kechichian

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