A poisoned chalice
It's Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, Hillary Clinton is elected president of the United States after a long, bitter, and rancorous campaign against reality television star and real estate executive Donald Trump. Mr. Trump could never fully recover from a series of devastating recordings, which were released throughout October highlighting that the candidate is as boorish and predatory in private as he is in public.
In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin watches as that brief large orange blip of a potential Trump presidency disappears as quickly as it emerged. The closest Putin will likely see of Trump is a hotel of his namesake in Moscow, as Ivanka Trump struggles to find a market where her father’s name still resonates luxury and power. Alleged Russian government-linked hacking to President-elect Clinton’s e-mails and the Democratic Party National Committees’ servers only managed to end the Party Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz’s fraught tenure. In contrast to his tactical moves in Ukraine and Syria, Putin’s play for a Trump presidency didn’t bear out.
Putin’s Syria Play
After having US Secretary of State John Kerry drawn into an endless circus of diplomacy with his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for over a year, Putin decides to make one final major tactical move in the lame-duck days of the Obama presidency. Putin recognizes it’s better to cut a deal with Obama on Syria than wait until Clinton takes office who will be much less accommodating.
Aleppo, for all intents and purposes, has fallen to President Assad’s control. While views vary in Moscow and Tehran over the need for Aleppo to secure their own interests in Syria, there’s no deep appetite for a further campaign in the north and northwest of Syria. Having reached a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Putin, Erdogan has consolidated Turkey’s own position in northern Syrian with little Russian interference.
The southern front is by no means in play for Russia or Iran. Obama, despite some tough talk on Russia from Kerry the past month, is focused on the campaign against Daesh in Mosul and potentially, Raqa’a. Neither Putin nor Khamenei are itching to “liberate” those parts of Syria even if President Assad may rhetorically boast it’s on the table.
The border areas with Lebanon are largely already under Hezbollah control. Homs and Hama are still regime priorities, but for Moscow and Tehran, President Assad’s position in Syria is all but guaranteed and so are their interests. The risks of not going for a deal and waiting for the new administration in their view outweigh any of the potential further benefits they could gain.
Putin knows there’s the perfect man to make the deal, Secretary John Kerry. For Kerry, a Syrian peace deal increasingly looks to be the one that got away in terms of legacy moments. Even when the White House sighed about the utility of another round of negotiations, the secretary of state couldn’t let go.
A Fait Acompli
Putin offers both a new version of the cessation of hostilities agreement with some coordinated targeting of Daesh and Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (Al Nusra), which failed to materialize in practice last month and a new commitment to re-start the negotiations in Vienna around finding a political settlement. He also makes a humanitarian gesture of allowing assistance to recently “liberated” and besieged areas.
For Obama, even though he knows this is a poisoned chalice, sees no downsides to letting his Secretary of State John Kerry engage Moscow on this new offer. The upside is when writing his memoirs and reflecting on Syria in his post-presidency days, the president can say that under his leadership, he was the one who kept the US out of a new war in the Middle East and set Syria on the path to a political settlement. Obama has no interest in owning the final negotiated terms on Syria, which would likely be hammered out by Clinton’s new secretary of state. Kerry, who has pushed for such an agreement for months, eagerly embraces this final diplomatic mission.
Putin’s aware of how little leverage Kerry has when he goes into these new negotiations with Lavrov to lock it down. This makes offering a bad deal to Washington easier. While it’s unlikely that Kerry and Lavrov can fully hammer out a final agreement before January 2017, Clinton essentially then becomes a fait acompli to a poisoned Russian-American understanding on Syria’s future. While Putin failed to keep Clinton out of the White House, the Russian president scored in Syria.
In the wake of the recent failed UN resolution on Syria, even though this is all hypothetical, it’s not too hard to see this poisoned chalice becoming a reality.
Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D. is a Global Fellow in the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
in Washington, DC.