After Four Years of Failure in Syria, Obama Looks to Russia and Iran for Help

Listen closely to the president, Putin, and Rouhani and you’ll hear common ground on Assad and ISIS.

09.28.15 6:10 PM ET

When President Barack Obama spoke at the United Nations today, he opened the door wide to cooperation with Iran and Russia in an effort to end the Syrian civil war that has shattered the Middle East, spawned ferocious new terrorist forces, and driven millions toward the frontiers of Europe to seek safety.

In what was generally a boilerplate paean to democracy, the rule of law, and the virtues of diplomacy, Obama conceded “nowhere is our commitment to international order more tested than in Syria,” where “realism dictates that compromise will be required.”

Reality also demonstrates that Obama’s efforts to shape a policy over the last four years of violence have been utter failures, with the latest humiliations including the defection of U.S.-trained Syrian rebel forces to the ranks of al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

Given the difficult business of choosing between evils, Obama’s sticking to his commitment to fight the so-called Islamic State: “We will not be outlasted by extremists,” he said.

But when it comes to the blood-drenched regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Obama presented a context for cooperation with Assad’s biggest backers, Tehran and Moscow.

“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” Obama declared, even if “we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo.”

That point would seem to be moot. Syria has changed forever, and it will be a miracle if, at the end of the day, it can be held together as one integral nation, let alone the country it was five years ago. And while Obama seems to be personalizing the enemy as Assad, Washington has always acknowledged quietly that the institutions of his government can and should be preserved.

“Yes, realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and stomp out ISIL,” Obama declared, using the acronym favored by the White House for the Islamic State, or ISIS. “But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad into a new leader and an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to the chaos so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild.”

In recent days, especially, both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have made remarks that could accommodate that vision. For both, the first priority is indeed to “stomp out” ISIS.

“We say between worse and bad, we must choose bad,” Rouhani told National Public Radio over the weekend. “Or, in other words, we choose the lesser of two evils.”

Putin, in a 60 Minutes interview broadcast on Sunday, was more specific.

“We support the legitimate government of Syria,” he said, suggesting that to undermine it was to open the way to the kind of chaos now on show in Libya. But, while Charlie Rose kept peppering Putin with questions about Assad, directly, Putin was careful to talk about the Syrian government in more general terms:

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“There is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism,” Putin said. “But, at the same time, urging them to engage in positive dialogue with the rational opposition and conduct reform.”

That does not sound terribly different from a path toward “inclusive government.”

But as Obama acknowledged, stating the obvious, any final resolution to the Syrian conflict will be a long time coming, and it is apparent that modalities for cooperation in Syria, direct or indirect, will evolve slowly and, very often in the shadows.

A case in point, on Sunday an intelligence-sharing agreement was announced among Syria, Iran, Russia, and the government in Iraq. (Some pundits are calling the Damascus-Tehran-Moscow-Baghdad alliance taking shape “the gang of four.”) Yet there also are as many as 3,000 U.S. personnel in Iraq working, in many cases, precisely, on intelligence gathering. Will their insights be shared by Baghdad with Tehran, Moscow, and Damascus? It will be very hard to tell. But the question itself suggests some of the contradictions, and the traps, that lie ahead.