Stephen Walt is “thinking outside the box,” suggesting “a bit of a hail Mary” for mitigating the conflict in Syria:
Is there anyway to convince Assad and his closest associates to leave? I don’t have a surefire way to do it, but one big step in the right direction would be for Russia to shift is position and stop protecting him. In other words, what if Moscow made it clear that they were willing to grant Assad et al asylum if they left, but were not willing to help keep them in power any longer?
I don’t see this as particularly outside the box. In fact, I’ve been harping on about Russia’s support for Assad for months now. In this interview on RT from February I explained how Moscow’s support for Assad is one of the main factors prolonging the conflict. “Russia,” I wrote in March, “even after endorsing the Annan talks, continues to arm and support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.” If this support were hypothetically withdrawn, I think it’s clear that would put unprecedented pressure on the Assad regime, which is already facing extreme diplomatic isolation. I hadn’t considered the asylum part of it, but that would certainly sweeten the deal.
As I understand it, Russia’s relationship with Syria is very much like America’s relationship with many of its own satellite states headed by puppet dictators. It is a relationship that, Moscow calculates, affords them a lot of influence in the geostrategically important Middle East, and continuing to support Assad throughout this conflict gives Moscow an opportunity to push back against Western, particularly U.S., imperialism for the sake of maintaining their own stake in the region.
The question is, as Walt points out, why in the world would Russia give up their satellite in Syria? Indeed, why would the U.S. willingly give up their influence in Bahrain or Yemen or Iraq just because it would be the humane thing to do? Walt suggests (1) letting Moscow and Putin take full credit for resolving the crisis and (2) to “toss in concessions on European missile defense, which is a costly boondoggle we ought to be ditching anyway.” I reckon there are several such “carrots” Washington could offer Moscow to make disunion with Assad more palatable. But this of course assumes Washington’s main concern is stopping the bloodshed in Syria, which it evidently is not. Like in Libya, the Obama administration views “credit” for “helping Arabs” as a high commodity, and I don’t see them easing up on the missile defense plan.
Furthermore, it seems unlikely that, if the Russians help facilitate a post-Assad transition, Washington would take a hands-off position going forward. Both Russia and the U.S. will then be vying to shape the politics of post-Assad Syria with nothing but their own interests in mind (and to the detriment of the Syrian people, if history guides). To Moscow and Washington, what happens in Syria is about them, not about the well-being of Syrians. If an obsessive-compulsive commitment to insidious intervention in the internal affairs of others remains the status quo, such a deal will be increasingly remote.