Why a U.S.-Brokered Peace in Syria is Unattainable

Over the week­end, Rus­sia killed a major leader in the Syr­i­an oppo­si­tion in what amounts to a giant suck­er punch:

Even as the regime was bomb­ing rebels in the east­ern sub­urbs of Dam­as­cus and in a town to the south­west, it was mak­ing prepa­ra­tions to expand a cease-fire in the south­ern out­skirts of a cap­i­tal sur­round­ed by the chaos of the war.

Last week, the Unit­ed Nations Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil unan­i­mous­ly passed a res­o­lu­tion out­lin­ing a road map for a polit­i­cal solu­tion to end the war in Syr­ia, now in its fifth year. U.N.-mediated peace talks between the regime and oppo­si­tion were expect­ed to start in late Jan­u­ary.

There is a lot more con­text to the spe­cif­ic cir­cum­stances of the Syr­i­an resis­tance, as well as a poor prece­dent for any future peace effort, but I see this as some­thing much big­ger, and more wor­ry­ing from the per­spec­tive of any peace­mak­ing: Rus­sia is opposed to it.

Rus­sia, as one of the five per­ma­nent mem­bers of the UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil, vot­ed in favor of this road map know­ing full well that this leader, Zahran Alloush, was an impor­tant part of that process. In addi­tion, they have delib­er­ate­ly avoid­ed strik­ing at ISIS tar­gets, choos­ing instead to tar­get the rebels that might con­ceiv­ably pose a legit­i­mate alter­na­tive to Assad’s rule.

So, know­ing that Rus­sia is engaged in per­fidy to under­mine any peace process in Syr­ia, what does that mean? For one, it means the plans offered by the GOP and by Hillary Clin­ton to impose some sort of inter­ven­tion or no-fly zone are, at best, stu­pid and at worst incred­i­bly dan­ger­ous. When Turkey shot down a Russ­ian attack jet for vio­lat­ing its air­space in Novem­ber, there were wide­spread fears about a broad­er war between NATO and Rus­sia result­ing. Thank­ful­ly that did­n’t pass, but there is vir­tu­al­ly no way the U.S. mil­i­tary could rea­son­ably imple­ment an NFZ with­out also strik­ing at Rus­sia. And that won’t hap­pen. It’s off the table.

This would apply dou­bly so for a direct inter­ven­tion, even against ISIS. For starters, direct­ly strik­ing at ISIS will not mate­ri­al­ly alter its appeal or its bru­tal­i­ty; at best it might shift that bru­tal­i­ty around a bit. As long as Bashar al-Assad remains in pow­er, ISIS will remain a pow­er­ful attrac­tant for those who wish to destroy him. And Rus­sia has proven that it will lie, cheat, and mur­der, in order to defend Assad.

That leaves the U.S. with very lit­tle else to do in Syr­ia, and it is because of a dis­com­fit­ing fact I have not­ed for sev­er­al years, but which very few advo­cates for war seem inter­est­ed in admit­ting: ISIS is not a very big threat to us. Yes, it is wor­ry­ing, and yes the insta­bil­i­ty they cause are a prob­lem, but the super­heat­ed rhetoric from the White House that ISIS is the biggest threat since sliced bread rings awful­ly hol­low when you think about it.

For con­text, our air war against Ser­bia in Koso­vo was more intense in terms of ordi­nance and strike fre­quen­cy. And, while ISIS’ spe­cif­ic type of vio­lence is grue­some, it is not extra­or­di­nary: nar­cotics car­tels engage in sim­i­lar­ly lurid, hor­ri­fy­ing acts of socio­path­ic bru­tal­i­ty right along our own bor­der and it has nev­er sparked the same sort of hand wring­ing or demands for mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion that ISIS has (I sus­pect it is because we are accus­tomed to view­ing prob­lems in the Mid­dle East as nation­al secu­ri­ty prob­lems, while dis­count­ing prob­lems in Latin Amer­i­ca as polit­i­cal and law enforce­ment prob­lems).

Put sim­ply: actions mat­ter more than words. And our actions do not indi­cate that ISIS is a very big threat, or even a major threat. If it were, then we would not be pas­sive­ly accept­ing Rus­si­a’s tar­get­ed vio­lence toward the very peo­ple we’ll need to remove ISIS and thus con­sol­i­date the rebel groups against ISIS. If ISIS was real­ly the gigan­tic apoc­a­lyp­tic threat “experts” say it is, then we would be look­ing at what we could trade Rus­sia and Iran (or use to coerce them) in return for their giv­ing up Assad. I’ve laid out some of these options before:

  • Sub­si­dize and sup­port Euro­pean ener­gy inde­pen­dence from Rus­sia, then imple­ment a total embar­go on Russ­ian ener­gy sales in dol­lars;
  • Issue ICC arrest war­rants for every sin­gle Russ­ian, Iran­ian, and Syr­ian offi­cial and offi­cer who has ordered, approved, or car­ried out a delib­er­ate attack on civil­ian tar­gets inside Syr­ia;
  • Impose a total finan­cial ban on every sin­gle Rus­sia, Syr­i­an, and Iran­ian offi­cial world­wide so that they can­not hold a bank account, car­ry out a trans­ac­tion, or move any amount of cur­ren­cy denom­i­nat­ed in dol­lars;
  • Remove Rus­sia from SWIFT and kill their abil­i­ty to con­duct for­eign trade; and
  • Have Rus­sia and Syr­ia join Iran on the state spon­sors of ter­ror­ism list;

There are some more ideas. We could con­sid­er trad­ing Ukraine in return for Syr­ia: tell Moscow they can have Crimea uncon­test­ed and that we will stop sup­port­ing Ukraine’s defense against Russ­ian aggres­sion in the Don­bass if Rus­sia gives up Assad. Same with Iran: give up our remain­ing sanc­tions and offer them full diplo­mat­ic rela­tions in return for end­ing their sup­port to Assad.

Does all this sound far fetched? Absolute­ly! The U.S. gov­ern­ment will nev­er do these things. And to be frank I don’t think they should: Syr­ia is hor­ri­ble, yes, but I do not think it is the kind of threat that jus­ti­fies upend­ing so many inter­na­tion­al agree­ments and dis­rupt­ing the glob­al econ­o­my to the extent that these mea­sures would require.

But that is pre­cise­ly my point: yes, Rus­sia is being a jerk, yes Syr­ia is hor­ri­fy­ing, and yes we all wish the car­nage would stop and every­one would unite around killing ISIS. But Rus­sia does­n’t think ISIS is the threat; they think the Syr­i­an rebels are. Iran does­n’t think ISIS is a threat, they think the Syr­i­an emails are. And the White House does not think Rus­sia or Iran are the real prob­lems; they’d rather park a brigade of troops in Iraq and send drones into Syr­ia than do any­thing deci­sive.

And that’s fine! We should use the impos­si­bil­i­ty of peace in Syr­ia as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to reassess our actu­al inter­ests, and to be hon­est about the actu­al threats and chal­lenges we face, not sim­ply to dou­ble down on the same old neo­con­ser­v­a­tive patholo­gies that cre­at­ed this gigan­tic mess in the first place. But I also don’t think we’ll do that, either; com­plain­ing about Rus­sia seems to be far more attrac­tive to most ana­lysts than either accept­ing that we have lim­it­ed stakes or mak­ing a bold move against actors who have clear­ly high­er stakes.

Maybe we can start to shift the con­ver­sa­tion a bit toward hon­esty about how impos­si­ble peace is in Syr­ia and a bit away from the years upon years of reck­less war mon­ger­ing. I am skep­ti­cal, though.


Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.