End the Charade of Syrian Peace Talks

Rebels could use more of these.

Photographer: ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images

It may seem beside the point to boycott peace talks that had already been suspended and weren’t likely to go anywhere. But that’s what the U.S. and its allies need to do if they want to regain any kind of leverage in Syria.

QuickTake Syria’s Civil War

Russian bombers helped the government of President Bashar al-Assad achieve scorched-earth victories on the ground during recent peace talks in Geneva. Worse, by allowing Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin to use diplomacy as a cover for bombing, the U.S. and its allies have legitimized and even aided the Russian campaign.

This has to stop. At a minimum, there should be no resumption of talks later this month, as currently planned, until government forces allow humanitarian assistance to the 1 million Syrians now trapped and starving in rebel-held areas. The Russians’ air campaign and Assad’s use of indiscriminate barrel bombs must also come to end.

What to do when Moscow and Damascus reject these conditions, as they surely will? At this point, there are no good options. But it’s worth playing out how Putin and Assad’s version of events might proceed.

Putin’s commitment to the peace process, it is now clear, is about as believable as his claim to be fighting Islamic State in Syria. His basic strategy is simply to help Assad crush any rebels who might plausibly join peace talks. When the only anti-Assad forces left are Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front, there will be nobody left to negotiate with.

QuickTake Fighting Islamic State

This strategy helps Assad, Russia’s ally, remain in power. It has also produced thousands more civilian casualties and tens of thousands of additional refugees, now at the Turkish border. Turkey’s government says a further 600,000 may follow, hoping to make their way to the European Union.

Even if Western leaders were to accept the peace on these terms, millions of Sunni refugees would be reluctant to return to a country controlled by Assad’s security forces. Rebel fighters from defeated mainstream groups would be more likely to join the Islamic State and al-Nusra, the last resistance groups left standing.

Putin is right about one thing: Russia’s ability to determine the outcome of the war in Syria requires a willingness to exercise military power. In the U.S., support for military intervention is lukewarm at best. The U.S. needs to rethink how to help the rebels in a way that forces Putin and Assad see the value of negotiations. U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia can also be prodded to do more to help stop Assad’s advance. And surely President Barack Obama can do a better job explaining the urgency of this threat.

In the meantime, administration officials need to remember that diplomacy is not an end in itself -- and to call it out when others use it as a cover for war.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.