The Obama administration began a new diplomatic process Friday to solve the Syria crisis -- a gambit that depends on Russia to eventually push Syrian President Bashar al Assad to step down. But not even America's allies think Russia will reverse its support for the dictator.
Representatives of all of the countries supporting forces in Syria's civil war met for nine hours in Vienna, after which top U.S. officials said that the new talks had made some progress in identifying shared goals, such as maintaining Syria's territorial integrity and ending the violence. Diplomats from the U.S., Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and several other countries agreed to meet again within two weeks. There was no agreement on the key issue, whether Assad would be compelled to leave power as part of a transition to a new Syrian government.
Antony Blinken, the U.S. deputy secretary of state who spoke Saturday at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, said the U.S. government believes it's only a matter of time before Moscow realizes that its military intervention and its ardent support for Assad's continued rule are mistakes, after which the Russian government could support a political process that includes replacing Assad.
"Russia's intervention in Syria is a prime example of the law of unintended consequences. It will have two primary effects," Blinken said. "First, it will increase Russia's leverage over Assad. But second, it will increase the conflict's leverage over Russia. And that will create a compelling incentive to Russia to work for, not against, a political solution." Russia will not be able to afford to sustain its military intervention in Syria for long, Blinken said, and sooner rather than later the economic, political and security costs will force Russia to re-evaluate its Syria policy. He said Russia will be dragged into a quagmire, and he expressed confidence that Russia would come around to the realization that in order to solve Syria, it will have to agree to Assad's departure.
"Russia has a choice now on how to move forward, and we would welcome it making the right choice for our shared interests," Blinken said.
After he spoke, a series of officials and experts from the countries that are allied with the United States on the Syria issue openly disagreed with the contention there was any significant chance Russia would come around to the Western view on Assad's future.
The British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, told me he had good reason to be skeptical of that optimism.
"There's a school of thought that says that as the Russians get drawn into this conflict, they will more and more looking for a way to get a political solution," he said -- but "it's not my government's assessment." Hammond said he spoke with Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, the day before in Vienna after the talks concluded and Lavrov told him Russia did not have any flexibility on the issue of Assad's departure. Hammond said that the Russian position on Assad is exactly the same as it was three years ago and that it's likely to remain the same. Russia says Assad was elected, and only an election can replace him.
That would be "directly at odds with those of us who believe that Assad has so much blood on this hands that he has to depart before there can be a sustainable political solution in Syria," Hammond said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. Lavrov has said repeatedly that the fate of Assad was a decision for Syrians alone and that Russia would not negotiate a date for his departure.
Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, spoke at the conference after Blinken and said that in order for any real political process in Syria to begin, Russia and Iran must withdraw their forces from Syria and agree to a date and means for Assad's departure . Al-Jubeir said Saudi Arabia would continue to arm the Syrian opposition until Russia and Iran agreed to both conditions.
François Heisbourg, the chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former top official in the French foreign ministry, disputed Blinken's contention that Russia would feel pressured by the costs of its intervention in Syria: "I would be very surprised if Russia could not sustain such an effort despite its other difficulties until at least the end of the American electoral cycle in November of next year" -- in other words, wait out the Obama administration and deal with the next president.
Maxim Shepovalenko, a senior research fellow at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, told me that the Russian thinking is that the military intervention might actually succeed and that Assad might stay. Either way, there's no way the Russian government is going to negotiate Assad's departure anytime soon.
"We believe firmly that the Syrians will decide for themselves, and if this campaign is a success, Assad is definitely the one who will be preferable," he said.
What if the U.S. government's assumption is wrong, and Russia does not become a force for a political resolution in Syria? Is the Obama administration depending too heavily on Russia to pressure Assad? Blinken pointed to the U.S. efforts to build up rebel groups to fight the Islamic State as evidence that the U.S. is still pressuring Assad. He didn't specifically mention the 50 U.S. special forces troops that the U.S. just announced it will send into northern Syria.
"The forces that are being empowered on the ground to fight Daesh are also increasingly in a position to help create the conditions for political transition in their country as well," he told me. "And we will continue to work and strengthen our support for those forces." The Obama administration has long said that its support for Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State, also called Daesh, is not directed at Assad. In any case, U.S. support for the rebels fighting Assad has declined, especially after the U.S.
canceled its "train and equip" program to empower local fighters.
Privately, European diplomats at the conference told me they were concerned the new U.S.-led diplomatic effort was an empty gesture, to allow the Obama administration to claim it was working in earnest to solve the Syria crisis. America's allies are reluctant to invest in a process in which they do not think the U.S. has much confidence and that has little chance of success.
U.S. officials told me that the Vienna talks with Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others are an honest attempt to convince Russia to change its position on Syria and that there is some hope Russia will endorse a solution to the Syrian civil war that does not include Assad remaining in power. But nobody else in the room shares that hope.