At its core, Haley’s speech represents everything that has been wrong with U.S. policy in Syria. Both the U.S. and the U.K. are eager to criticize from the sidelines, but lack any unified policy of their own. The West has completely failed to connect with the Russians and continues to publicly play on ideals rather than come up with policy. Facts—like the basic fact that the UN has not yet investigated who was behind the gas attack—have been completely ignored in favor of overtures like Haley’s speech.
The U.S.’s reluctance to do more in Syria than deliver air strikes is understandable. After over a decade, the U.S. liberation left Afghanistan a borderline failed state; Iraq is still in full-blown conflict—one that arguably gave birth to ISIL. Attempts to train Syrian rebel forces have been an embarrassment: in 2015, a $500 million-dollar program, designed to produce 5,000 rebel fighters, produced only five after multiple defections and desertions, including to the al-Qaeda affiliate rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra.
The U.S. military airstrikes have been complimentary to another, often seemingly central theater of war—that of public relations, in which Russia has taken center stage as the “bad guy.” Moscow’s actions in Syria have been portrayed as a distraction from the quagmire of the Ukraine crisis, an imperialist pursuit of a power deaf to human rights concerns, or a revanchist project to remind the world of Russia’s military power.
It seems that instead of working to establish a unified policy on Syria, the U.S. has focused on demonizing Russia. In doing so, Washington has missed a crucial fact of Russian policy towards Syria: privately, Russian advisers have long understood that Assad would eventually have to step down. In 2012, according to a Guardian report, the Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin reportedly suggested to the U.S., France and the U.K. that Assad should cede power after peace talks began, a plan dismissed by the three states.
Russia’s goal in Syria is not to fight a proxy war with the U.S. (a war that Russia cannot afford to enter) or to reassert its dominance in the simplistic way allusions to the Cold War suggest. For Russia, with its high Muslim population, eternal Chechnya problem, and borders with the Muslim-dominant Central Asian states, a radicalized Syria is a more pressing concern than it is for the United States.
A foreign policy that is driven by “red lines” looks fantastic on paper but is useless in real life. Red lines can and have been blurred. Rhetoric about the monstrous nature of Assad and Russia’s complicity do very little to change the status quo; it only shuts down communication.
Russia needs the West and the West needs Russia if the Syrian conflict is to end. Russia is not an irrational or deranged player, no matter how much the West paints it as such. Putin is, above all, a pragmatist and no great lover of Assad. Cooperation and communication to end a conflict must be the first and only priority. Criticism of Russia’s actions is necessary, but so is an alternative to the current state of affairs. That has not occurred, partially because the West cannot decide to what level it is ready to commit, partially because it refuses to engage with Russia in any meaningful way. Even President Trump’s assertive missile strike seemed reactive rather than part of a long-term policy. It boosted his popularity, however.
Let’s hope the international community starts prioritizing a serious effort to help Syria rather than fixating on winning the information war.