As any student of international affairs would tell you, diplomacy is a reflection of the balance of power, not the balance of rhetoric.
And in Syria, power has tilted in favour of Bashar al-Assad and his Russian patrons after the Kremlin decided to intervene militarily in Syria in September last year.
Nonetheless, the White House, which preferred to keep a distance from the Syrian war, saw an opportunity in the new Russian challenge to US hegemony in the Middle East. Vladimir Putin might have been emboldened by the intervention, but he also gained more leverage over the Assad regime and succeeded in sidelining Iran.
The Obama administration reckoned that working things out with Russia would be tidier and more productive than having to deal with Assad or his backers in Tehran. And it would pave the way towards cooperation by Russia in the war against ISIL and al-Qaeda.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying ever since to no avail. Not only has he failed to bring the Russians to agree to a minimalist diplomatic settlement, but his latest failure to bring about at least a ceasefire in Aleppo makes it clear that Russia, while capable, is unwilling to use its leverage to bring about a diplomatic solution.
None of this should come as a surprise. The writing has been on the wall for some time.
Obama’s reluctance, Putin’s belligerence
The United States and Russia might have co-sponsored various attempts in Geneva and Vienna to bring about a political solution to the Syrian war, but ever since the Syrian issue became entangled in global power politics, it ceased to be about the Syrian future. Syrians went on to suffer and die as the whole country is sacrificed on the altar of superpower cynicism.
US-Russian confliction over Libya and Ukraine took its toll on Syria. Instead of settling the conflict, Washington and Moscow began settling scores with Russia taking the lead.
Obama’s reluctance to adequately support the opposition or make Assad pay for trampling over his red lines by using chemical weapons against his peoples provided Putin with an opportunity to up the ante. He increased arms shipments to Assad and eventually intervened directly on his side.
Putin’s gamble worked: He changed the balance of power in Assad’s favour and had little or no incentive to get rid of him. Not even in favour of a transitional ruling coalition of regime and opposition forces that leaves the state structures intact.
For the Syrian opposition, the pressures multiplied. They had to fend for themselves on two fronts: from the Russian-supported Assad regime and from ISIL.
And not only have they miraculously withstood the unrelenting bombardments, they even made progress against ISIL, latest this week, by recapturing the northern town of Dabiq from ISIL – long considered important to fulfil the group’s apocalyptic prophesy.
A flawed process
Curiously, this same American administration that slapped Russia with tough sanctions because of its intervention in Ukraine has rewarded it for its intervention in Syria.
You might expect that the US would at least rethink its calculus and change its expectations following Russia’s military. It didn’t. The Obama administration has instead widened its deliberations with Russia as the lesser of two evils – war being the other evil.
But war continued unabated.
Worse, the US designated Russia as the go-to power to talk about Syria, with US officials nudging their Arab counterparts and Syrian opposition figures to go to Moscow to vent their frustrations and share their ideas. Suddenly, more diplomats were flocking to Moscow than Washington in pursuit of a Syrian solution.
But Russia became at once the judge and executioner; a co-sponsor of the Syrian talks and the co-bomber of opposition strongholds.
It protected the Assad regime in the international forums and helped Assad forces regain control of areas “liberated” from his army and militias.
Russia went on to translate its military superiority into tactical and diplomatic gains with Kerry happy to oblige in the hope of keeping the process alive.
The US accepted Russia’s diktats in separating the opposition into “terrorists” and “moderates” to pursue militarily, and “moderates” before agreeing to a political settlement (Assad insisted they were all terrorists or treacherous).
But it failed to convince or coerce the Russians to make the same distinction on their side, including Assad and Iran supported forces and militias, which are responsible for most of the civilian deaths in the country.
But then, at least the US is trying to make diplomacy work. Right?
A for effort?
Kerry has been given immense credit for his unrelenting efforts to pursue a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis. Just when you’d think “Mr Diplomacy” is done trying, he comes back with a new framework. And just when you think he’s snapped and there’s no turning back, he creeps back as if nothing had happened.
But then he’s at the service of a president who’s so indifferent; he won’t consider any alternative to cheap-talk, knowing all too well that Putin is playing a cynical game.
After four years of diplomacy, the United States may still be the one calling for the talks, but it’s Russia calling the shots both on the ground and in the negotiations.
And Russia made it clear it won’t give up in the negotiations what it won on the ground.
All of which brings me to the most important question of the day: When does diplomacy stop being a way to resolve the conflict and starts becoming a way to cover up for war and war crimes? Or, in other words, has diplomacy become the continuation of Russia’s war by other means in Syria?