Can Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin Fix Syria Together?

After Paris, is there any chance Russia and the U.S. can find a way to get rid of Assad and concentrate on destroying ISIS? Two former ambassadors say the answer is complicated.

There was no sound, only pictures conveyed to the media when the U.S. President and the Russian President sat down to talk at a coffee table in a hotel lobby in Turkey last weekend. Just two days after the attacks in Paris, photos of the two men in serious conversation conveyed a sense of welcome urgency. With Syria in the headlines training jihadists to strike in the heart of Europe and the French declaring their country at war, a moment for new leadership was suddenly at hand.

Would President Obama and President Putin answer the call to forge a grand alignment to defeat the Islamic State? French President Hollande will be in Washington Tuesday to meet with Obama; then he travels to Moscow to meet with Putin. Secretary of State John Kerry, in the midst of talks in Vienna, said he was optimistic a cease-fire could be reached in Syria.

For those trying to understand the Rubik’s Cube that is Syria, a ceasefire would be between Assad’s regime and the more moderate opposition. It has nothing to do with ISIS, except without it, there can be no unified fight against ISIS.

At the potentially historic coffee table summit in Turkey, a translator was with Putin while National Security advisor Susan Rice accompanied Obama. Delegates to the G-20 summit milled about and heavy security kept everybody away from the foursome for 35 minutes. With the brutality of ISIS demanding a global response and more refugees in Europe than at any time since World War Two, we won’t know until their memoirs are written whether Obama and Putin feel the weight of history, and whether they can set aside their differences to confront a common enemy the way FDR did with Josef Stalin to confront Hitler.

Former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul cautions against using words like “alignment” when it comes to working with Russia, or falling too much in love with any sweeping metaphor. That will only end in disappointment, he says.

But the downing of a Russian jet by ISIS could be a game changer. “This is the moment to make the case that doubling down on [Syrian President] Assad won’t work,” McFaul says. And if Putin shifts his strategy in Syria away from propping up Assad, and directs his firepower against ISIS, the ceasefire Kerry seeks could be within reach.

“There’s not a strategy where you defeat ISIS without having a political settlement in Syria,” says McFaul. Now a professor of political science at Stanford, he uses an academic term -- “Pacted transition” -- to describe a pact between Assad and the more moderate opposition, where elements of the regime would commit to a road map and time line that results in a new head of state and relegates Assad to an interim honorific role.

“Not a change of regime, a change at the top, and that’s an important difference,” says McFaul. The regime would commit to no more barrel bombing of civilians; the opposition would turn away from extremism.

Easing out Assad is key, and unless Russia is ready to make that deal, this peace attempt could fail like two previous efforts in 2013 and 2014. “Putin believes we’re naïve about the Middle East, and we don’t appreciate the role that a strong man can play,” says McFaul, who served as ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014.

“We’ve had that debate in Syria, Egypt and Libya. Our view at the time, change is underway – it’s not about whether we want it or not, people have taken to the streets. Do we push for a more peaceful transition or will there be violent revolution? The longer you support Assad, the more likely it becomes violent revolutionary change.”

Before Paris, Putin tried to cast himself as leading the fight against ISIS when in reality Russian planes were bombing the opposition forces that the United States supports. Putin fighting ISIS was “a giant myth,” says McFaul. He never once bombed ISIS until early this week, after publicly confirming the terror group had brought down that Russian jet over Egypt with a bomb.

Former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is skeptical that the Russians are really changing their stance about Assad, and as long as Assad is in place, the armed opposition will not mobilize to fight against the Islamic State.

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“This is the same Damascus government that dropped barrel bombs and chemical weapons,” says Ford, who is now a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute in Washington. “These are 20-year-old and 30-year-old battle hardened fighters. Syria is an incredibly brutal police state – and they’ve been fighting for years. Do you think they will go home to where the police can find them?”

Ford is not convinced that a few cosmetic changes in Damascus will turn the battle from a civil war into a unified assault against ISIS. Kerry keeps plugging away at a diplomatic solution, and it should become apparent soon whether the Russians are giving up on Assad and pressuring him to accept a transitional government, and if the Paris attacks, and the downed airliner, have fundamentally changed Putin’s thinking.

To bring an end to World War Two, all parties agreed Hitler was the fundamental problem. It would be history-making if Obama and Putin could resolve their impasse over Assad and focus on degrading and defeating ISIS. For Obama, it would save his legacy on foreign policy; for Putin, it would restore Russia’s greatness along with the personal stature that he craves on the world stage.

“Do you really think the Russians care anything about Paris?” Ford asks. “The way of proving it would be getting rid of Assad. But maybe Putin is like Donald Rumsfeld. You don’t fight the Islamic state with the Syrian leader you want; you fight it with the Syrian leader you have.”

Historical analogies are never perfect, but when the future of Western civilization hangs in the balance, the mutual respect Obama and Putin managed for 35 minutes in Turkey could be the start of something big.