Fred Hof writes: Secretary of State John Kerry’s tireless, frenetic drive to short-circuit mass homicide in Syria by finding common ground with Russia has come to naught. It has gone up in the flames with the smoke now rising above Aleppo. It has died with defenseless, terrified civilians in their homes, hospitals, markets, and mosques: a population top-heavy with children targeted mercilessly by Russian pilots and their Assad regime counterparts. Where Kerry’s superbly intentioned diplomacy went wrong was its failure to distinguish between the arguably objective interests of the Russian Federation and the personal desires of its current leader, President Vladimir Putin.
No Russian diplomat with whom I interacted while serving in the State Department ever failed to say something unkindly accurate about Moscow’s Syrian client, Bashar al-Assad. The highlight came during the pivotal Geneva negotiations of June 2012. The American, French, and British delegates argued forcefully for language that would exclude “anyone with blood on his hands” from Syria’s to-be-negotiated transitional governing body. The objection of the chief Russian delegate was revealing: “Come on. Everyone will know we’re talking about Assad.” His point was irrefutable.
The corruption, incompetence, and brutality of the Assad regime is not lost on Russian officials. They are intimately aware of the role the regime played during the first decade of the twenty-first century ferrying foreign fighters from the Damascus airport to Iraq, where they joined Al Qaeda in Iraq: the direct ancestor of ISIS (ISIL, Islamic State, Daesh). They are cognizant of the regime releasing from prison violent political extremists back in 2011 in the hope they would pollute and ultimately dominate the peaceful, nationalistic, and non-sectarian opposition to Assad regime violence. They are not unwitting of the eastern Syria governance vacuum created by Assad regime lawlessness and how ISIS has filled it. They know quite well that the regime’s survival strategy of mass homicide pumps oxygen into the lungs of the ISIS recruiting apparatus, both in Syria and in Sunni communities around the world.
Knowing that his Russian counterparts know all of this, John Kerry proceeded on the assumption that Moscow could be persuaded to cooperate in transitioning Assad offstage. He was encouraged in this assumption by a Russian counterpart eager to mislead so as to preserve American operational passivity in the face of mass murder. Kerry’s White House counterparts jumped onto the shared-interests bandwagon with unbridled enthusiasm, assuring visitors that Moscow would bend over backward to cooperate with Washington diplomatically for the sake of establishing joint military operations, which Russia allegedly needed to “legitimize” its military presence in Syria. This delusional belief in common ground with the Kremlin was fed and sustained by the one actual fact known to Kerry and to White House officials: President Barack Obama would not so much as lift a finger to protect Syrian civilians from Assad regime mass murder. It was therefore up to Vladimir Putin to protect them. [Continue reading…]