THE BLOG
10/03/2016 12:14 am ET Updated Oct 03, 2017

Putin V. Russia In Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry's tireless, frenetic drive to short-circuit mass homicide in Syria by finding common ground with Russia has come to naught. It has gone up in the flames with the smoke now rising above Aleppo. It has died with defenseless, terrified civilians in their homes, hospitals, markets, and mosques: a population top-heavy with children targeted mercilessly by Russian pilots and their Assad regime counterparts. Where Kerry's superbly intentioned diplomacy went wrong was its failure to distinguish between the arguably objective interests of the Russian Federation and the personal desires of its current leader, President Vladimir Putin.

No Russian diplomat with whom I interacted while serving in the State Department ever failed to say something unkindly accurate about Moscow's Syrian client, Bashar al-Assad. The highlight came during the pivotal Geneva negotiations of June 2012. The American, French, and British delegates argued forcefully for language that would exclude "anyone with blood on his hands" from Syria's to-be-negotiated transitional governing body. The objection of the chief Russian delegate was revealing: "Come on. Everyone will know we're talking about Assad." His point was irrefutable.

The corruption, incompetence, and brutality of the Assad regime is not lost on Russian officials. They are intimately aware of the role the regime played during the first decade of the twenty-first century ferrying foreign fighters from the Damascus airport to Iraq, where they joined Al Qaeda in Iraq: the direct ancestor of ISIS (ISIL, Islamic State, Daesh). They are cognizant of the regime releasing from prison violent political extremists back in 2011 in the hope they would pollute and ultimately dominate the peaceful, nationalistic, and non-sectarian opposition to Assad regime violence. They are not unwitting of the eastern Syria governance vacuum created by Assad regime lawlessness and how ISIS has filled it. They know quite well that the regime's survival strategy of mass homicide pumps oxygen into the lungs of the ISIS recruiting apparatus, both in Syria and in Sunni communities around the world.

Knowing that his Russian counterparts know all of this, John Kerry proceeded on the assumption that Moscow could be persuaded to cooperate in transitioning Assad offstage. He was encouraged in this assumption by a Russian counterpart eager to mislead so as to preserve American operational passivity in the face of mass murder. Kerry's White House counterparts jumped onto the shared-interests bandwagon with unbridled enthusiasm, assuring visitors that Moscow would bend over backward to cooperate with Washington diplomatically for the sake of establishing joint military operations, which Russia allegedly needed to "legitimize" its military presence in Syria. This delusional belief in common ground with the Kremlin was fed and sustained by the one actual fact known to Kerry and to White House officials: President Barack Obama would not so much as lift a finger to protect Syrian civilians from Assad regime mass murder. It was therefore up to Vladimir Putin to protect them.

Those who pursued the shared interest mirage were not without reason and logic. After all, they reasoned, the announced purpose of Russia's military intervention was to fight ISIS. Yes, this turned out to be untrue: Russia intervened to save Assad. Still, the president and others would argue that ISIS was indeed a common enemy and, given Assad's total loss of governing legitimacy in the eyes of most Syrians, surely Russia feared a quagmire if it focused on saving a criminal family. Moreover, argued some, in light of the fact that the regime's methodology of choice - barrel bombs on residential neighborhoods; mass detention featuring starvation, torture, and sexual abuse; sieges on cities and towns aimed at promoting disease and starvation to encourage surrender - fell disproportionately on Sunni Muslims, Russia would certainly have to weigh its support for a highly sectarian criminal enterprise against its relations with the Sunni world.

Indeed, one may argue quite convincingly that Russia is behaving stupidly in Syria: that if it succeeds in sustaining Assad indefinitely it will simultaneously subvert the interests of Russia and the security of Russians at home and around the world. And although its actions in Aleppo may have permanently alienated a large majority of Syrians, were it to stop now and help transition Assad and his entourage to Minsk or Caracas, a new Syrian government that combines serving, non-criminal officials with mainstream, nationalist opposition figures would likely suck it up and endorse a continued Damascus-Moscow special relationship, one featuring military basing rights and broad political cooperation.

For Vladimir Putin, however, personal political interests always trump the interests of the Russian Federation. Putin has made a huge, entirely self-serving deal of an alleged American regime change agenda in the Middle East. He has promised one and all that he will stop a rampaging, violence-prone, pro-terrorist Barack Obama in his tracks, and Syria is where he will do it.

Putin personally may see Bashar al-Assad as other Russian officials see him: an embarrassment and a human toothache. But Assad personifies the 'state' Putin intends to save from the alleged regional destabilization machinations of the US. How can Vladimir Putin - who has manufactured this nonsense and promoted its associated jingoism for purely domestic political purposes - cooperate in sidelining Assad without risking being seen as an enabler of the grand plot he has vowed to defeat? And how can Putin not like the political effects on Western Europe of a migrant crisis spawned in large measure by Assad's unrestricted violence?

In the end it is entirely up to Russians to define the Federation's foreign policy and national security interests. The view here is that perpetuating something as vile and despicable as the Assad regime will not, in the fullness of time, do any good at all for the Russian Federation or its people. Vladimir Putin does not, however, worry about the fullness of time. He focuses on keeping his seat. He calculates that others, down the road, can deal with the consequences of what he has done to survive politically.

The danger is that American leaders will continue to justify their failure to push back materially against mass murder in Syria by citing Moscow's 'big mistake,' and by continuing to explore the never-never land of shared interests in Syria with Putin's Russia. Yes, the facts of the case would suggest that Washington and Moscow would both benefit greatly from a neutral, non-sectarian, Syrian transitional governing authority devoid of polarizers and dedicated to reform, reconstruction, and reconciliation. But Mr. Putin has placed his interests above what some of his very knowledgeable countrymen would say are Russia's, and a majority of Russians seem to think -- at least for the moment -- that Putin has it right.

Whatever excuses the administration offers for leaving Syrians defenseless against mass murder, the continued search for common ground with Vladimir Putin should not be one of them. If nothing else, John Kerry's exhaustive diplomatic due diligence should retire that illusion permanently.

Frederic C. Hof, director at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, served as a special adviser for transition in Syria at the State Department in 2012.