One of the most commonly heard buzzwords heard around Washington is «American leadership». America must lead, we are told, or nothing good can happen. No matter what the issue or relevant locale, no matter how far from American shores or insignificant the impact on Americans’ safety or prosperity, the whole world waits with bated breath for the wizards of Washington to «lead».
Only rarely does anyone ever address the questions of «leading» to where, to what end, to accomplish what? And how does the end benefit the United States? One would think those questions would be decided first with only then considering the matter of who leads, who follows, and who gets out of the way.
The issue of American leadership, or absence thereof, is relevant to next week’s kickoff of Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, brokered by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. The United States – or more properly, the Obama administration – was not invited at all, much less leading anything. That’s all to the good.
Without the Obama-ites mucking up the table, perhaps there’s finally a chance for peace after six years of carnage. The key is that after repeated rounds of the fruitless «Geneva Process» between Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the Russians finally decided that the Obama administration could not be a productive interlocutor. (I’ve lost track of how many times Lavrov and Kerry cheerfully announced an understanding on how to move forward, with the U.S. immediately declaring afterwards, «...BUT, Assad must go!»)
After having had quite enough of Washington, or at least enough of the outgoing Obama crew, Moscow decided to deal with Ankara instead. Despite the notoriously erratic tendencies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the almost six years of war, he’s turned out to be more reliable than U.S. President Barack Obama and Kerry. The first evidence of that was the relatively quiet wrap-up of east Aleppo, which was far less than the humanitarian catastrophe many in the west predicted, and perhaps were hoping for.
As to the role and impact of each side on the process of the Astana negotiations, Moscow, closely working with Damascus and Tehran has the upper hand. Most importantly, the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stays – period. There will be no «regime change».
Among the three sponsors, Turkey remains the odd man out. On the other hand, in these talks Ankara, and only Ankara, speaks for the «opposition» – that is, the terrorists (most of them non-Syrians) fighting against the Syrian government. If Erdogan has abandoned his unreal, maximalist goals, as appears to be the case, he can secure terms that wind the war down in a way that lessens the terrorist blowback Turkey has already experienced.
It’s been reported that Kazakhstan may itself join the talks, though that’s unlikely to impact the substance. The main foundation in Astana is unity of purpose among Syria, Russia, and Iran, which has been essential to their success on imposing their agenda on their adversaries. Turkey has been forced to come to terms, the Obama Administration has been dealt out, and other powers – notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar – now need to consider how disruptive they intend to be even though they cannot prevail in their initial goals. Qatar is probably smart enough to figure that out. Saudi Arabia probably isn’t, as its behavior in Yemen shows.
So where does this leave American leadership, with President Donald Trump now taking the helm in Washington? Some media have reported that Russia has invited the incoming Trump administration to the Syrian peace talks, putting it the context of an expected cooperation between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Reportedly, Iran has objected to having the U.S. there at all. It’s too soon to tell yet what the American presence (if there is one) in Astana might have, but the invitation – as, I assume, only an observer for now – is a positive sign. If Trump keeps faith with his campaign promises to work with Russia and destroy, not just contain, Daesh, their participation could be a big positive as opposed to the Obama approach, which could only be a «spoiler».
Keep in mind that during the 2016 campaign, Trump had strongly criticized Obama’s policy in Syria, saying President Assad’s ouster should not be a primary US interest. So far so good. However, it’s not clear to what extent other «baggage» might complicate things. There are many «Iran hawks» coming into the Trump administration. The ridiculous and false phrase «Iran is the world’s leading sponsor of global terrorism» is commonly heard. Recently, a group of former officials, including many close to the incoming Trump team, issued a letter calling for what amounts to «regime change» in Iran and support for the notorious terrorist Marxist-Islamic cult, the «Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK)». In effect, it’s a call for Trump to destroy his administration over Iran the way George W. Bush destroyed his in Iraq.
On the other hand, Trump himself has noted that Iran, along with Syria and Russia, are fighting Daesh. He has said that the days of «regime change» and «nation-building» are over. As a businessman, he’s smart enough to know that dumping a few trillion dollars down the drain will ruin his primary goal to restore the American economy and create jobs. He has to choose. Unfortunately, even in his own administration he may find himself lonely. We shall see.
If the partial success in Aleppo of the tripartite Moscow-Tehran-Ankara entente can be replicated countrywide, and if Trump makes good on his pledge to work with Moscow to destroy Daesh (and hopefully al-Qaeda and its many offshoots), we could see this war wind down quickly. To be sure, some resistance will continue in the eastern part of the country. Pacifying Syria also depends to some extent on events in Iraq, notably in Mosul (where lack of reports in western media suggest things are not going as well as hoped). But the prospect exists to liberate and restore peace to the major population centers, which would be a great start.
It’s too soon to be wildly optimistic. But if Astana sees Washington (under new management) taking the uncharacteristic step of exercising leadership by not messing things up and instead letting the countries more directly concerned work things out, we may have reason to be encouraged. More importantly, we may have reason to hope that there are at last people in Washington who have learned to distinguish between when to act in defense of vital interests and when to decline to act when such interests are not at stake.