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Vladimir Putin, Aleppo and the Diplomatic Shambles in Syria

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As the U.S. withdraws from diplomatic talks in Syria, Russia continues their proactive role in the conflict, and peace remains elusive as ever.

The U.S. withdrawal from the Syria talks exposed the diplomatic process for what it has been since February: a Potemkin Village construct that has played far more to Moscow’s advantage than to Washington’s. Russia has been left not as a broker or mediator in Syria’s conflict but as a combatant–along with Iranian Hezbollah forces and Iraqi Shiite militias–and tarred with primary responsibility for the devastation wrought by the assault on Aleppo.

The suspension of talks may not bother Vladimir Putin on some levels. Bashar al-Assad’s regime, backed by the Russian military, has made gains with the deaths and further destruction of Aleppo. But the Assad regime has shown a marked inability to hold the ground it has taken. Mr. Putin may reconsider participating in some kind of political process before too long.

Events on the battlefield, including Russia’s military intervention, have shaped the conflict much more than the political process in New York and Geneva and are likely to continue to do so.

Maintaining a feint at diplomacy allowed Russia to say it was interested in winding down the violence in Syria as it funneled military support to Mr. Assad. The dual track gave Mr. Putin the legitimacy of working with the international community, particularly the U.S., while preserving an opportunity to take a political exit from Syria. Russia could militarily ensure that the Assad regime consolidated gains over “essential” Syria–Damascus, Homs, and the Aleppo area–while using the process to remind Mr. Assad that Moscow’s support is not unlimited and to press him to the negotiating table at a moment of Mr. Putin’s choosing.

Beyond laying bare the bad bet the Obama administration, particularly Secretary of State John Kerry, made on Russia, the U.S. decision to suspend the talks shows that Washington has no effective strategy. With the diplomatic process in shambles, the White House is reportedly reconsidering military strikes against the Assad regime, a tactic it has very publicly resisted for years. It’s not clear that this administration would take military steps to implement “safe” zones and “no-fly” zones and direct attacks on the Syrian air force, long associated with a “Plan B.”

Barack Obama is considering a muscular alternative with four months left in his presidency. Is he prepared to ratchet up military pressure if Russia and Iran also ramp up? Mr. Kerry all but said last week that U.S. military action would probably force Iran and Russia to double down as well. He also indicated that the Syrian-Russian assault on Aleppo might change the conversation at the White House, presumably to a tougher approach. But Mr. Kerry has been making the case for years that without leverage–supplied by military power–U.S. diplomacy is toothless. And there is no guarantee that half-measures would force a change in Moscow’s approach.

Foreign policy analysts across the spectrum have written for years on the reasons that a military solution is basically impossible for Syria’s conflict. Still, events on the battlefield, including Russia’s military intervention, have shaped the conflict much more than the political process in New York and Geneva and are likely to continue to do so.

As long as external powers such as the U.S. and Russia are driven by very different agendas and priorities, they will have limited ability and willingness to deescalate the conflict, let alone resolve it. Meanwhile, the Syrian battlefield grows ever more complex. The assault on Aleppo pushes the less ideological rebels closer to the more extreme groups and creates further obstacles to a durable cease-fire.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

This article was originally published on the Wall Street Journal's Think Tank blog. 

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Aaron David Miller image

Aaron David Miller

Global Fellow
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more