Roughly four years ago, in October 2015, as reflected on the website of the Baker Center at Rice University, Ed Djerejian, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria (2002-05), gave an interview. Although no longer connected with the U.S. Department of State's team on Middle East policy, and therefore not reflective of its current analysis or thinking, what passed for Ambassador Djerejian's insight at the time highlights and underscores the fundamental policy failures and strategic blindness that led up to the wilderness in which the U.S. now finds itself, with respect to the situation in Syria and, more broadly, the entire region of the upper Middle East - Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Apart from his slip of tongue on the interest of Russian President Vladmir Putin, in protecting access by the "Soviet naval fleet" to Latakia on the Syrian coast (Russia's only access to a "warm-water Mediterranean port"), Djerejian noted that while it was only reasonable for Russia to "attach a great deal of importance to that," Putin's "major" motivation in coming to the rescue of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was in countering "the threat of Islamic radicalism." He then described how this made sense because, after all, al-Assad is a "secular leader." To deconstruct how ill-informed this point of view truly was, now that we have the last four years in hindsight, let's begin by noting that al-Assad and the word "leader" do not belong in the same sentence, with one describing the other. Al-Assad, the son of one of the Middle East's most brutal dictators, got the job regardless of his leadership qualities; instead, he's basically running the family's business.
While some may have hoped, many years ago, that as a more educated and cultivated member of the al-Assad family, he might be change course from the tyranny of his father after being named Syria's next autocrat (he was a British-trained opthalmalogist before then), al-Assad has since indubitably lived up to the proverb that the apple does not fall far from the tree. His regime's rampant brutalities and his deep personal complicity in them are naked for all to see and hear: millions of lives destroyed, cities flattened, vast depopulations throughout the countryside, an entire infrastructure and economy destroyed - all because a Sunni majority, living mostly outside Damascus but otherwise well represented in other key cities and throughout the country, had the temerity to demand the right to be heard on the overall circumstances of their governance. This is who Ambassador Djerejian called a "secular leader," presumably because (although this is unstated) the al-Assad regime always made relatively generous accommodations for the religious practice and commericial prominence of ethnic minorities in Syria - Allawite, Druze, Christian - to offset the power of the Sunni majority. In any case, his "non-sectarian government" certainly was willing to destroy the country in order to save it - a strategy with which, apparently, Ambassador Djerejian and President Putin both sympathized.
But putting aside al-Assad's deeply flawed character, let's delve further into the motivations of President Putin. As noted above, in coming to al-Assad's rescue, Ambassador Djerejian described Putin's primary motivation as stemming from his interest in countering - in his own country - "the threat of Islamic radicalism." This, on its surface, might ring "we hear you loud and clear" bells in the United States where, ever since 9/11, threats to the security of the homeland have been deeply etched into the American psyche. But as with many of Russia's motivations and methods, the applied art of cognitive dissonance is the appropriate rule of thumb. As proof of his assertion that Russia is on the side of the good guys, sharing the West's well-founded desire to thwart "Islamic radicalism," Ambassador Djerejian cited the potential for unrest among millions of Muslims in the southern sphere of Russia, most conspicuously represented for the past several decades by its control of Chechnya. He did not reflect on the then present-day reality that Putin enjoyed and still enjoys: the absolute subservience to Putin of Chechnya's current strong man, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has ruled there locally with an iron fist (including through targeted assassinations) since early 2007. As a result, Islamic radicalist threats to Russia's integrity are, and have been for a while, largely held in check.
This takes us back to the first reason for Russia's deepened involvement that was proffered by Ambassador Djerejian in his 2015 interview, regarding Russia's desire to protect - and perhaps even expand - its treasured possession of a warm water naval port in Lakatia, something which he characterized as having understandable military importance. This, in turn, while not dispositive of the larger purposes of their relationship, reflects that the tie that binds Russia and its Syrian client state is their mutual desire to ward off all challengers to the ongoing mutual usefulness of their alliance. For al-Assad, it is the protection afforded to Syria by the boots on the ground of a nearby superpower. For Putin, it is the projection of that superpower's power and influence in its near abroad. And here is where a former U.S. ambassador recommended tolerance and tact, even suggesting that tacit support of such activity by the Russians, in the name of eventually finding some common ground between the two superpowers, could be useful, perhaps to begin a discussion about - well, what? Some overall, major power consensus that eventually leads to peace in the deeply war torn and destroyed land of Syria? Some lasting stabilization of the competing actors and players across the entirety of an ever turbulent Middle East? Even if there may have been a defensible modicum of sense in such a sentiment when the ambassador gave his interview, which requires having a worldview that ultimately, if you can't live without the Russians, you might as well live with them, it has now been fully discredited in the intervening years up until now.
Contrast Ambassador Djerejian's interview with two articles of roughly the same vintage written by a veteran Middle East analyst, Kyle W. Orton. In the first post, dated mid October 2015, Mr. Orton noted that President Putin's strategic imperative in Syria was not to counter the threat of "Islamic radicalism," but to use that threat as a way of undermining far more moderate opposition toward Syria's "leader," thereby solidifying his fellow despot's brutal hold on power and earning his undying loyalty.
In a somewhat later post (late December 2015), Mr. Orton reflected on then recent claims by former President Barack Obama that his administration's deployment of military force against the Islamic State reflected a measureable degree of promise. In particular, the demise of several of Islamic State's leading fighters was purportedly notable at the time, as a sign leading toward its eventual decline and defeat. But that premise was gradually dashed by a sad reality. While now larely dispatched (and since replaced by other chaotic cross-currents of fighting), Islamic State had reached, by that time, a level of durability that withstood such momentary losses for several more years. That is, it turned out that its mid-level operational ranks were capable of inside-the-tent replenishment and that it would take far more blood and treasure for Islamic State to be defeated decisively. Since that time, even after that defeat was procured with the extensive and invaluable assistance of Kurdish fighters in north Syria, Islamic State may nonetheless re-emerge, albeit as a more scattered and opportunitistic player, and the recent removal of its "caliph," Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, will clearly not cause it to wither and die. And, reflecting on the deeper issue of how Islamic State not only managed to preserve its ability to attract followers at the time, Orton pointed out that the liquidation of individual fighters did virtually nothing to reduce its overall appeal. Even now, the desire of young men in destroyed or displaced Sunni communities, to continue to oppose Syrian and Russian control, may have grown recently on the wings of Turkey's dramatic intervention against Kurdish control.
So, fast forwarding to four years later, here we are in late 2019, and it should be clear that while the dust may have largely settled in some areas of Syria, that's mainly because the wrong side won the war and is now consolidating its gains. In other areas - most notably, along the border between Turkey and Syria - the ongoing chaos and cruelty, in the absence of U.S.-led efforts to maintain an uneasy co-existence between resident populations - has only intensified. Now, the fundamental question is considerably different: can the U.S. do anything effective, with Donald Trump having withdrawn American military forces from direct involvement, that might reduce or assuage the intense enmities driving this conflict? Will there be any true stabilization that overcomes the need and effect of the fast-shifting alliances that disrupt and destroy the lives of civilian non-combatants? It may be hard to see how the current snapshot of issues facing the world, with regard to the ongoing catastrophe of Syria, is worthy of even deeper examination than it merited four years ago. Still, over 15 years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, it is impossible to deny the conclusion that the role of the U.S., and the West generally, in Syria, and across the entire Middle East, is essentially in tatters. Amidst the many broken shards of a viable, reasonable and defensible strategic policy and presence in this region, that might lead it out of the extremely dark and troubling era, one of the saddest parts of the story is that American diplomats were so fundamentally clueless about the dynamics of the deeply unstable and violent arena in which they were stationed.