For the past two and a half years, as the civil war in Syria has descended into brutal bloodletting and spilled over its borders, Obama administration officials have consistently decried the growing presence of Islamist extremists in the conflict. But on Wednesday, Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken turned that logic on its head: The growing role of extremist groups may actually be a good thing for bringing the conflict to a close, he said.
Speaking at Transformational Trends, a conference co-hosted by Foreign Policy and the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. State Department, Blinken said that the radicalization of the conflict may create a shared interest among world powers to bring the war to an end. The growing prominence of radical groups has "begun to concentrate the minds of critical actors outside of Syria" and may strip the Bashar al-Assad regime of the key international backing that has so far helped to keep him in power.
"The Russians have a profound interest in avoiding the emergence of an extremist Syria, a haven for extremist groups," Blinken said. "Many of Syria's neighbors have the same incentive, and of course we have a strong reason to want to avoid that future."
All this points to a possible "convergence of interests" among world powers to back a negotiated solution to the conflict. "The test will be coming up in January," Blinken said, referring to the peace talks in Geneva scheduled for that month.
Moscow and Beijing have provided consistent diplomatic backing to the Assad regime, and their refusal to push Assad toward the negotiating table has been a key factor in torpedoing efforts to reach a negotiated solution. Moreover, Russia has provided a steady flow of arms, which has helped replenish Syrian armed forces over the course of a grinding civil war.
While ties between Moscow and Washington has been severely strained over the course of the Obama administration, one of the few bright spots in that relationship has been a general willingness to cooperate on issues of terrorism. Russia faces an Islamist insurgency in the Caucasus, and Moscow has been the site of frequent terror attacks. And before the United States found itself bogged down in Afghanistan, it was of course the Soviet Union who struggled against the Afghan Mujahedeen.
Whether that concern over terrorism is sufficient for Moscow to abandon Assad is of course uncertain, but it is that fear of resurgent terror that animates what Blinken called a "convergence of interests" on Syria. As terrorist groups gain a foothold in Syria, the reasoning goes, Moscow will become sufficiently concerned that the situation has gotten so out of control as to de-escalate and force Assad to negotiate.
In a conversation later on Wednesday with FP CEO and Editor-at-Large David Rothkopf, former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon described the deal to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons as an example of how Russia and the United States have been able to productively work together on the Syrian civil war. "It's an important joint project that the Russians and the United States have entered into, and that I think really is an important aspect of this," Donilon said. While a political settlement to the war in Syria may seem far off, Russia and the United States' ability work with one another at least opens up the possibility that they might be able to come together on an issue that has so far bedeviled the two countries' relationship.
In remarks that spanned the provisional nuclear deal with Iran and ongoing talks to reach a status of forces agreement with the Afghan government, Blinken also addressed what has come to be seen by many as the cautionary tale of the United States' inability to reach such an agreement with Iraq.
Violence has severely escalated in Iraq over recent months, and some have speculated that had the United States been able to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government to maintain a troop presence there, U.S. forces might have prevented a resurgence of violence. But Blinken disputed that notion and said that that argument fails to understand the nature of the proposed agreement between Iraq and the United States.
"If we still had troops in Iraq today the numbers would have been very small, they would not have been engaged in combat, that would not have been their mission," Blinken said. "So the idea that they could or would have done something about the violence that's going on now in Iraq seems to me to be detached from the reality of what the mission would have been had they stayed in any small number."
Dakota Fine for Foreign Policy