In Manila this week Prime Minister Turnbull, echoing the language of other Western leaders of late, spoke of the need for pragmatism when it comes to Syria:
...what we need there is a political settlement. And it is clear that the principal determinants of, the people that will decide who can be in or out are going to be the people in Syria. You know that dictating terms from foreign capitals is unlikely to be successful. So, clearly the, as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, said in Turkey, and I endorse what he said, the approach of all the parties to a resolution in Syria has to be one undertaken in the spirit of compromise, and in a spirit of pragmatism.
It all sounds reasonable and sensible and in many respects it is. But the subtext of this pragmatism is a willingness to compromise with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the interest of destroying ISIS. The idea that we should settle with Assad because ISIS is worse was given more clear-throated ventilation by former Prime Minister Howard this week.
There is no question that the priority today must be to end the conflict in Syria above all else. The scale of the catastrophe in Syria means that all options need to be considered, even unpalatable ones. Indeed, this has been obvious for a number of years. In September 2013, Rodger Shanahan and I wrote:
Syrian policy needs to operate within the realm of the possible, rather than the preferable. Having signaled that it is not willing to mount a major military intervention, the West needs to focus its efforts on diplomacy. This will not be easy. The West will need to find diplomatic solutions to the conflict and its consequences without, as far as is possible, rewarding the Syrian leadership for its brutal behaviour and for the responsibility it holds for the death and suffering of millions of Syrians.
But in considering unpalatable options, it is also vital that we be clear-sighted about them.
The current formulation being used by Western leaders to climb down from the 'Assad-must-go' tree is a willingness to contemplate Assad remaining in power for a transitional period. It is upon this slender branch that a bridge was purportedly built between the US and its allies and Assad's international patrons, Iran and Russia, at the Vienna talks.
Significantly, that bridge does not yet extend to the Syrian opposition, who were not invited to Vienna, notwithstanding Turnbull's comment above that 'dictating terms from foreign capitals is unlikely to be successful.'
In any event, this does not really matter because I don't believe Assad or his international backers would stick to such a deal, even if they were prepared to agree to it. Over the last four years Assad has shown that he is prepared to sacrifice every last Syrian to remain in power. So far he has sacrificed a quarter of a million of them. Why would he budge now when his military position has been strengthened by Russian and Iranian intervention and when he thinks that the West fears ISIS more than it fears him remaining in power?
Nor do I think Russia or Iran will abandon Assad easily. Every so often they float the idea that they are not wedded to Assad personally remaining in power, and to some extent this is true. Were they, for example, to be forced to choose between protecting their interests in Syria and protecting Assad, they probably would give him up. But they have never been placed in that position. Instead they suggest they might give up Assad in the hope of dragging the West closer to their position, gradually eroding Western opposition to Assad remaining in power permanently.
It is not ordained that the US and allies such as Australia should have to be Russian or Iranian patsies. To get to closer to a political settlement, the West will have to concede some transitional role to Assad. This is the right kind of pragmatism. But it has to be accompanied by a determination to ensure that Assad's rule really is transitional.
I fear, however, that this kind of pragmatism will be accompanied by the wrong kind; the kind that has seen Western countries tolerate and even embrace myriad Middle Eastern dictators at great cost to both the people of the Middle East and to Western interests and security. These repressive, dictatorial systems have incubated radicalism and terrorism, and even at times promoted it. Repression does not create jihadism and extremism, but it creates the conditions for it to thrive, helping it to gain supporters and foot soldiers.
It was, for example, the repressive policies of the Maliki Government in Iraq that drove Sunnis in that country into the arms of ISIS. And it was Assad's brutal response to the originally peaceful protests of the Arab uprising in Syria that transformed it into a violent civil war and a magnet for jihadists.
Yet we still turn a blind eye to this connection between dictatorship and extremism. In Egypt, for example, Western pragmatism is gradually winding down pressure on the increasingly repressive regime of President Sisi. Yet under his rule terrorism in Egypt has grown rather than diminished, as the recent bombing of the Metrojet airliner in Sinai underlined.
In the case of Syria, this wrong kind of pragmatism will mean, I fear, that after Western leaders concede to Assad a transitional role in running his country they won't have the determination, persistence or patience to stop his rule becoming permanent. In fact, I suspect some Western policymakers privately know this already; some might even favour it. They may be thinking that even if we cannot dislodge Assad after this 'transitional period', a permanent Assad is still better than the alternative.
But they are wrong.
Assad is no more capable of returning stability to Syria with Western backing than he is without it. Any political process built upon Assad playing a transitional role in his country will soon collapse once it becomes clear that his role is becoming permanent. Any deal that unintentionally or otherwise helped Assad survive will also entrench Russian and Iranian strategic gains in Syria. No one in Syria owes more to the Russians and Iranians than he does. In fact, the West would be complicit in increasing the security threat that Iran and Hizballah pose to Israel as they expand their presence in Syria.
But most damaging of all, such a deal would reinforce the view in the Arab world that, when faced with a choice, the West will always side with repressive dictators over their citizens. And we will probably still wonder why they hate us.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.