Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result may not meet the clinical definition of insanity, but it’s still a pretty good standard. It also happens to define both, former United States president Barack Obama’s and current President Donald Trump’s approaches to working with Russia on the Syrian civil war. Washington and Moscow have repeatedly issued joint statements outlining principles for addressing the conflict and reducing its horrific humanitarian consequences. Yet, over and over again, the Russians have betrayed their commitments.
Consider the record. In November 2015, the then US secretary of state, John Kerry, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reached an agreement on the Vienna principles. They called for a cessation of hostilities; lifting the sieges on all cities; the unimpeded provision of food, medicine and other humanitarian materials; the drafting of a constitution in six months; and a political transition process of 18 months. In December 2015, these principles were enshrined in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s regime blatantly violated all of the terms: It lifted no sieges and did not allow humanitarian relief to pass unimpeded.
The Russians, too, did nothing. Although Al Assad and the Russians did finally implement a ceasefire two months later, it collapsed by April 2016 as the Al Assad regime resumed its onslaught against civilian targets, with a special emphasis on hospitals. Much as in his use of chemical weapons, Al Assad hit hospitals to show that he would respect no limits. Kerry was reduced to condemning Al Assad’s attacks while plaintively appealing to Moscow to act on the responsibility enshrined in the December 2015 resolution. “We all signed the same agreement and we all supported the same UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for a nationwide cessation of hostilities,” he said, adding that “it calls for a nationwide, full delivery of humanitarian assistance within all of Syria”.
Clear words, but no consequences. Not surprisingly, Kerry’s calls were in vain. By the autumn of 2016 he tried again, reaching an agreement on a joint operations centre with the Russians in the hope of reducing the violence and making a political process possible. Once again he was frustrated, declaring that he had “profound doubt about whether Russia and the Al Assad regime can or will live up to the obligations that they agreed to in Geneva”. The Russian response was to launch a scorched-earth attack on Aleppo, which reduced the eastern half of the city — then Syria’s largest — to rubble. That ended Kerry’s efforts.
Trump has made his own attempts to get somewhere with the Russians. On the margins of the Group of 20 summit in Germany in July 2017, he and Putin finalised a ceasefire agreement for southwestern Syria. Trump met again with Putin in November at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, where they issued another joint statement on Syria. It emphasised the “importance of de-escalation areas as an interim step to reduce violence in Syria, enforce ceasefire agreements, facilitate unhindered humanitarian access, and set the conditions for the ultimate political solution to the conflict” on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
So how did the Russians act after that? Along with the Al Assad regime and the Iranians, they waged military campaigns that decimated and depopulated three of the four de-escalation areas. The fourth, the one Trump and Putin had agreed to in southwestern Syria, remained quiet — effectively freeing the Al Assad regime, with its Russian backers, to attack elsewhere.
Lately, Al Assad and the Russians have turned their attention to southwestern Syria, bombing relentlessly. On June 21, the US State Department issued a blunt statement warning the Al Assad regime and the Russian government about “serious repercussions of these violations”. The Russians intensified their bombing, creating a new refugee flow with more than 270,000 people fleeing to the Jordanian and Israeli borders. Did Moscow face any “serious repercussions”? No — only Trump’s pursuit of a summit with Putin.
Neither Obama nor Trump has been prepared to impose any consequences on the Russians. Both wanted to get out of Syria, not to be embroiled in it. And both permitted Putin to become the arbiter of events. So what should Trump do when he and Putin meet in Helsinki on July 16?
He should make a virtue of necessity and convey the following points: That the US will maintain its small presence in Syria until Daesh is gone; that unless Iran’s continuing entrenchment in Syria is contained, it will trigger a wider war between Israel and the Iranians; and that the US will back the Israelis completely, making it in Putin’s interest to stop the expansion of the Iranians and their proxies in Syria and prevent a major regional escalation. Trump may even suggest that the Russians broker a set of red lines between the Israelis and Iranians in Syria.
Indeed, Trump could also ask Putin to be his channel to the Iranians. Apart from limiting the potential for miscalculation with Tehran, it could give Putin a stake in coordinating with America on Iran. With the US having already conceded Syria to Russia, history tells us that America is unlikely to achieve more.
— Washington Post
Dennis Ross, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute, served in senior national security positions in the Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations.