Syria’s one hope may be as dim as Bosnia’s once was

October 6, 2015
Damaged buildings in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, Syria

Damaged buildings in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, Syria, July 6, 2015. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

Last week was quite something in the annals of international politics. Just when the West thought it had enough problems with Moscow, mostly over Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin sent Russian military forces into Syria.

He brazenly told the United Nations, and President Barack Obama, that he was there to help fight Islamic State, or ISIL as the Obama administration refers to it. Then the Russian military launched attacks on moderate opposition forces in Syria that Americans have been working hard to train and equip.

What a mess.

Putin’s real goal in Syria is almost surely not to fight ISIL. His more plausible aim, as reflected in his military’s initial bombing targets, is to bolster President Bashar al-Assad’s shaky regime by attacking insurgent groups close to ISIL strongholds — even if they are relatively moderate and unaffiliated with ISIL or al-Nusra, an al Qaeda offshoot. Putin wants to protect his own proxies, retain Russian access to the naval facility along the Mediterranean coast at Tartus and embarrass the United States while demonstrating Russia’s global reach.

Immigrants from Syria run in front of a train at Tabanovce border crossing between Macedonia and Serbia

Immigrants from Syria run in front of a train at Tabanovce border crossing between Macedonia and Serbia, June 19, 2015. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

Though Putin is undoubtedly concerned about ISIL, he will likely leave that problem to others. It appears to matter little to him that Assad is responsible for killing most of the 250,000 Syrians who have died in the civil war to date — and caused most of the massive displacement and refugee flows as well. In any event, Putin probably blames American naïveté for the fact that this war has dragged on for four and a half tragic years.

Yet Putin’s cynicism about this conflict may not preclude U.S.-Russian collaboration on a practical path forward. If the international community envisions and then tries to create some type of future weak confederation in Syria, it is at least possible that Russian and U.S. objectives can be partly meshed.

American interests in Syria are limited. Washington needs to defeat ISIL and ultimately unseat Assad from power in Damascus, while mitigating the humanitarian disaster befalling the country as fast as possible.

Russian interests partly overlap. Putin needs ISIL contained before its offshoots wind up in Moscow — as previous Muslim militant groups have in the past. Beyond that, he wants to exercise Russian leverage and influence on the Middle East stage in a way that enhances his own national prestige, as well as his nation’s.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and member the Russian delegation prior to bilateral talks at the Elysee Palace in Paris

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) talks to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and members the Russian delegation before talks with French President Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace in Paris, October 2, 2015. REUTERS/Michel Euler/Pool

To find common purpose with Russia, Washington should keep in mind the Bosnia model, devised to end the fierce Balkan conflicts in the 1990s. In that 1995 agreement, a weak central government was set up to oversee three largely autonomous zones.

In similar fashion, a future Syria could be a confederation of several sectors: one largely Alawite (Assad’s own sect), spread along the Mediterranean coast; another Kurdish, along the north and northeast corridors near the Turkish border; a third primarily Druse, in the southwest; a fourth largely made up of Sunni Muslims; and then a central zone of intermixed groups in the country’s main population belt from Damascus to Aleppo. The last zone would likely be difficult to stabilize, but the others might not be so tough.

Under such an arrangement, Assad would ultimately have to step down from power in Damascus. As a compromise, however,  he could perhaps remain leader of the Alawite sector. A weak central government would replace him. But most of the power, as well as most of the armed forces. would reside within the individual autonomous sectors — and belong to the various regional governments. In this way, ISIL could be targeted collectively by all the sectors.

Once this sort of deal is reached, international peacekeepers would likely be needed to hold it together — as in Bosnia. Russian troops could help with this mission, stationed, for example, along the Alawite region’s borders.

This deal is not, of course, ripe for negotiation. To make it plausible, moderate forces must first be strengthened. The West also needs to greatly expand its training and arming of various opposition forces that do not include ISIL or al-Nusra. Vetting standards might also have to be relaxed in various ways. American and other foreign trainers would need to deploy inside Syria, where the would-be recruits actually live — and must stay, if they are to protect their families.

Russian President Putin shakes hands with Syrian counterpart al-Assad in Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Kremlin in Moscow, January 25, 2005. REUTERS/ITAR-TASS/KREMLIN PRESS SERVICE

Meanwhile, regions now accessible to international forces, starting perhaps with the Kurdish and Druse sectors, could begin receiving humanitarian relief on a much expanded scale. Over time, the number of accessible regions would grow, as moderate opposition forces are strengthened.

Though it could take many months, or even years, to achieve the outcome Washington wants, setting out the goals and the strategy now is crucial. Doing so could provide a basis for the West’s working together with — or at least not working against — other key outside players in the conflict, including Russia, as well as Turkey, the Gulf states and Iraq.

The Russian intervention in this war has admittedly made things far more complicated. But if Washington uses this moment to recognize that its current strategy in Syria is failing, it may find a path forward that could offer better cooperation between Moscow and Washington. More important, this could be a path that meshes far more realistically with the realities of power and politics inside this forlorn, war-torn land.


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How about the Kosovo model for Novorosyia and the Russian part of Syria.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Please keep up. There is no “Novorosiya” anymore. The Kremlin pulled the plug on that little project quite some time ago.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

Novorossiya is a long term project same as Israel, Kurdistan etc..

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Putin really has no chin. I always wondered what is so odd about his visage. But the face lift has at least removed those awful bags under his eyes.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

This had to be an opinion piece because there are hardly any facts to back up the ridiculous claims being made. First of all, there are no “moderate” Jihadists in Syria. Second, claiming that Russia is avoiding bombing Daesh (ISIS) is absolutely absurd. Russia is bombing all extremists in Syria.

The USA is just angry because Daesh is their backdoor into Syria. Now, that backdoor is going to be forever shut as Russia wipes Daesh off the face of the earth. That has got to hurt.

Posted by Thayne | Report as abusive

US has ruined this nation in quest for their regime change driven by the misguided defense strategists.

These strategists seem unintelligent and out of touch with reality at best, of the nations they are meddling with that otherwise, were minding their business.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

Hmmm, seems something like this was tried in “Palestine” and Jerusalem after WW2. Well, almost 70 years later and that’s clearly not working out to “everyone’s” advantage. Maybe dividing the Middle East (including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other big players) into 100 “individual autonomous sectors” would solve all or problems: oil, refugees, religious intolerance, ignorance, war, genocide, terrorism, famine, income equality, random acts of violence, etc. By logical extension, why not divide the USA into 52+ “sectors” to solve the same issues? Think before you speak (or write!)

Posted by Bumbling | Report as abusive

1 is this a case of the Stinger stung?

Russia’s revenge for humiliation in afghanistan when the US provided anti-aircraft missiles to the mujahadeen

revenge too vs the EC for backing the Ukrainian gov’t

2 Are Assad’s mobsters profiting nicely from the ethnic cleansing trade?
who provides the escape transport & de facto permits?

3 mr Netanyahu claims that israeli-russian relations are ‘good’ –
what does this portend? will Israel also be a party to a syrian settlement?

4 how will any deal treat Lebanon?

Posted by EdMartin | Report as abusive

Why does Reuters give neocon war mongers a megaphone to spout their garbage.

As soon as the west realizes that Turkey, the Gulf Emirates and Saudi Arabia are the case of this mess and takes action against them, the killing will stop (at least in Syria — the Jihadis will bring home their killing skills back to Saudi, etc).

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive

Let them eat cake .. or something

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

I love the way Assad is blamed for all the deaths caused by terrorists financed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. These deaths are almost entirely on the hands of the U.S. I’m glad to see Russia involved, and hope they will be able to kill at the terrorists, whether financed by the U.S. or not.

Posted by ColRebSez | Report as abusive

Happy Birthday to Vladimir The Righteous!!!

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Bosnia’s model is a disaster. What’s the point of having a country with such a weak central governance and such divisions among people that previously lived together? If you are suggesting to partition the country along ethnic lines, why not create separate nation states? What will a confederation of ethnic divisions achieve?

Posted by bo.gotovina | Report as abusive

How can Reuters have the nerve to allow Michael O’Hanlon, one of the incessant warners about “Saddam’s WMD” and the need to invade Iraq in 2002 right up through the invasion on 19 March 2003, to be a columnist? Any halfway intelligent and well-informed person knows he’s a serial-liar, no better than Bush himself was. And afterwards he has continued shilling for America’s ‘defense’ contractors. His present at Reuters is like flushing the toilet onto the Reuters reputation. Is this what you want? Are you as corrupt as he seems to be? (Or else as stupid as he then would be?)

Posted by cettel | Report as abusive