In years to come historians may note the recapture of the ancient city of Palmyra, following closely on the heels of brutal Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) assaults in Brussels on 14 March, and of course earlier in Paris, as a turning point in the five-year-old Syrian war. More than ever, Western populations and governments fear further mass killings in European and North American cities perpetrated by ISIS. While everywhere counterterrorist measures are being tightened further, urgent thought needs to be given to a coherent Western strategy to the greatest threat to democracy in decades. As Tony Blair argued in the Sunday Times on 27 March, without that strategy the West is likely to face ‘periodic but increasingly frequent acts of terrorism that will result in many more victims and start to destabilize our political and social cohesion’.
Less than a year ago, in May 2015, the capture of Palmyra was seen as a great victory for ISIS and a major setback for the Assad government. In its recapture the Syrian regime has benefited from the decisive Russian military intervention. While the main Russian air force units involved were withdrawn two weeks ago, it is clear that a substantial force remains and is able to play a critical role. Without it ISIS’s hold on Palmyra may not have been broken. Assad’s indebtedness to President Vladimir Putin may have grown rather than diminished as a result, something he may have cause to regret later. Nevertheless for the time being President Bashar al-Assad’s position looks stronger than any time since the outbreak of the war in 2011. As Jeff Goldberg’s groundbreaking interview with the US president in the Atlantic makes clear, for Barack Obama the fight against ISIS remains the urgent priority. The ousting of President Assad does not.
In the UK, as elsewhere, parliamentary and public opinion on the Syrian war is steadily changing. The early hopes that Assad would follow the likes of eastern European dictators such as Slobodan Milosevic and Nikolae Ceausescu have been dashed in the face of decisive Russian action in defence of Assad, the absence of any meaningful US or Western intervention and the consequent weakening of the democratic opposition to the Damascus government. Added to this is the growing threat to the West from an increasingly violent and vengeful ISIS. The West has few decent options in Syria in these circumstances.
Where does this leave the Syrian peace process? Fortified by its military gains, and subject to Russian pressure, the Assad regime is highly unlikely to abandon the Geneva talks. Moscow is keen to keep its relationship with Washington in good shape, a feeling more than reciprocated by the US, whose secretary of state, John Kerry, just spent three days in Moscow, his third visit in 12 months. Kerry met not only with his opposite number Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov but also with President Putin. Syria was the main issue on the agenda. Both countries have a substantial interest in maintaining the current cessation of hostilities as well as seeing progress in the UN sponsored talks in Geneva. Above all President Obama, in his final year in office, recognizes that he can ill afford to alienate President Putin if he is to make real progress on critical issues on his agenda such as the Syrian peace process and the fight against ISIS.
As the Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov commented following the latest US visit, the frequency of Kerry's visits to Moscow is unprecedented. ‘It stems from the nature of issues we are discussing and from the US's recognition, despite its own declarations, that a number of major and important international problems cannot be solved without Russia,’ he said.
The latest round of Syrian peace talks, which opened on 14 March, was wrapped up in Geneva on 24 March with a paper on12 points of commonalities delivered to both sides for further consideration. At the top of the list is the principle of respect for sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria, and that ‘no part of the national territory shall be ceded’. At the same time Russia has been insistent that future negotiations should ensure equal representation of the Kurds while the Syrian opposition should adopt a more realistic stance and abandon attempts to set preconditions.
The recapture of Palmyra, ISIS attacks on the West and close US-Russian cooperation have heightened the likelihood of progress when the UN talks resume in Geneva in the coming weeks. The one party whose fortunes have diminished is the Syrian National Council. The onus on the US, as well as the UN, is to ensure that peace does not mean a return to the status quo ante. That would anyway be anathema to most Sunni Arab countries, let alone an opposition which for all its shortcomings must also see the rewards of peace.
Michael Williams is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Chatham House and International Trustee of the BBC.