The US commentator David Halberstam once pointed out that it is difficult, if not impossible, to conclude a “just peace”. More often than not, you have to opt between “peace” and “justice”.
Syria is a case in point. The current balance of power is not ripe for a satisfying and long-awaited deal. None of the main players seems to have an incentive to stop the killing and seek a compromise. This is understandable, as almost everyone involved has serious griefs and every right to consider their foes to be criminals who deserve punishment and to think their own survival is at stake.
Moreover, this or these conflicts are part of the not so cold war opposing Riyadh and Tehran, and they are the main focus of the tango between Moscow and Ankara.
Perhaps inadvertently, the policies of former US president Barack Obama looked like empowering Tehran, though conditionally, of course. US passivity also encouraged Moscow to intervene and to become a major player in Syria. At that point, most pro-rebellion Sunni powers in the region thought they had lost the battle or at least privately acknowledged that they could not topple Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. The rise of the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Nusra Front groups also imposed a change in priorities.
At that moment a few months ago, a deal — an infamous one, of course, but there can be no wholly good deals in the Syrian case — seemed possible, if distant. Then two further developments came along to change the equation.
The new US administration was deeply anti-Iranian and tried to repair badly damaged US relations with the Gulf. True, it kept saying that toppling Al-Assad was not at the top of its agenda, and that destroying IS was. And experts were quick to point out the inconsistencies between this stance and its anti-Iranian attitude. Most pundits think the policies of US President Donald Trump are unpredictable, dangerous and absurd. They are indeed unpredictable and dangerous, but they have a rationale behind them, though this does not mean they will succeed.
Then Al-Assad seemingly opted for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. I do not know what really happened, but the US claims are much more convincing than the Russian and Syrian denials. Al-Assad’s decision had a rationale behind it: terrifying bombing compensates for the lack of ground troops, and the Damascus regime seems to have a long-term strategic objective of changing the demographics of Syria by encouraging or forcing Sunnis to leave their homes.
Al-Assad might have misread the Trump administration’s statements. He also did not notice the ongoing power plays in the Trump administration, which has sidelined pro-Russian isolationists like advisor Steve Bannon and former advisor Mike Flynn and empowered generals James Mattis and H R McMaster, the advocates of much more aggressive positions against Russia, China and North Korea.
I am stunned by those who are stunned by Trump’s decision to react to the use of chemical weapons. It seems to me that he did not have much choice. Rightly or wrongly, the general impression delivered by his first months in office has been negative, and this had to be corrected. Trump could not afford, either internationally or domestically, to appear to tolerate misdeeds of such magnitude. This is all the more the case when one considers the present state of the world and US leverage.
It should be noted that Trump’s reaction was minimal. According to the press coverage, Trump did not go for the decapitation of the Damascus regime or for the destruction of the Syrian air force. Moreover, the Russians were warned and had time to protect their troops and arms.
All this, despite the critics, looks wise, as the strategic context is much less favourable now than it was before Russia’s intervention in Syria. It leads us to the natural question of what will come next. The strikes could be a one-off, they could draw new red lines, or they could signal a change of attitude towards Al-Assad and a new effort to get rid of him. Statements have been made endorsing each of these three options.
Whatever Trump’s true intention was, the first one can be discarded, or else the attempt at restoring credibility will backfire. The second one is plausible, but what if Al-Assad does not respect these new red lines? After all, his barbaric use of his air force and chemical weapons against his own people has its own strategic rationale and he might consider it to be necessary once again. The US will have to consider an escalation, now a much more complicated endeavour due to the Russian presence on the ground.
The Arab media published a lot of stories saying that the US administration had been looking for ways of convincing Russian President Vladimir Putin to abandon his support for Al-Assad. Many of Trump’s statements give credence to this narrative. But it is difficult to see how Putin could oblige, whatever the carrots might be.
These developments have given the anti-Assad Sunni powers hope. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been creating problems for Moscow and seems to have been emboldened by Trump’s moves. The tone of the Gulf media has drastically changed and even seems buoyant.
I have recently read an interesting article in the US journal the American Interest that pointed out that the American approach may be subtler than we think. Its priority remains the destruction of IS, and its methods remain “transactional”, the article said. Disagreements on Al-Assad and Iran and the use of aggressive rhetoric should not prevent cooperation between Washington and Moscow on other issues, including terrorism and North Korea, it added.
What is more worrying is the development of the regional mood. All of a sudden fatigue has receded, and everyone has new hopes and thinks a new round in the conflict might alter the equation by forcing the US into the game. Everyone has good reasons for being “firmer” as a result. The Trump administration’s policies have yet to be clearly formulated, and we have been witnessing a rush of regional leaders to Washington to sell different policies. A blunder could quickly inflame things further.
All this is all the more serious since a solution acceptable to all the parties cannot be imagined. They do not even agree on the list of players entitled to participate in the negotiations and in the political transition in Syria. And of course they do not agree on the general outlines of a political solution either.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.