PARIS — A majority of historians describe the Spanish Civil War, fought from 1936 to 1939, as a dress rehearsal for what came next, World War II. Will historians of the future be saying the same about the Syrian civil war?
All you need to do is replace Nazi Germany and the Italian fascists with Russian and Iran. We're not comparing the nature of these regimes. But in their active support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow and Tehran have a strategy, and they're enforcing it without qualm or hesitation. But Western democracies have so far been behaving as they did in their support of the Spanish Republic back then: with a mixture of cravenness and contradiction, incapable of devising and applying a coherent strategy.
Will all of that change under the double impact of Putin, on the one hand, and the refugee crisis on the other?
Will the Russian fear of being drowned by the influx of refugees bring change where the hundreds of thousands of dead Syrians, civilians for the most part, weren't enough to awaken our consciousness?
The fallout from the Paris attack will also undoubtedly factor in as well.
Shakespeare once wrote a play entitled The Comedy of Errors. It would be tempting to describe the ongoing Syrian conflict as the "tragedy of errors." One after another, they make up a sort of catalogue of what shouldn't be done. Even though men in general struggle to learn from the past, a little flashback is necessary to move on to a new phase.
The first sin, committed at the beginning of the Syrian civil war, was the pride that saw Western leaders claim that the regime would imminently collapse. "It's a matter of weeks, months at most," was what Washington, Paris and Jerusalem all believed. Yet even while proclaiming the inevitable fall of the Assad regime, these countries were doing so little to bring it forward.
When the West blew it
I still strongly believe — perhaps wrongly — that at the beginning of the revolution there was a short window of opportunity that could have made the difference, if we'd helped them quickly and significantly. That didn't happen.
As prisoners of doubt, we've executed the worst of policies, that which consists in talking a lot and doing little. The high point of this non-strategy was in early September 2013, when President Barack Obama's America decided not to react to Assad crossing a "red line" by using chemical weapons on his own people.
That day, President Vladimir Putin's Russia understood that it could move its pawns in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East and get away with it. By getting its military force involved the way it has been on a large scale for several weeks, Russia has changed the whole game, especially diplomatically.
It's now become politically impossible to do without Moscow and, since the Iranian nuclear deal, without Tehran. No diplomatic solution is conceivable without the active participation of the U.S., Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to which we should also add European countries such as France, Britain and probably Germany, not to mention the EU's High Representative.
Is a compromise conceivable? That will depend first and foremost on Washington's ability to finally define a strategy that goes beyond purely symbolic gestures, like its decision to send 50 special forces troops to help reconquer Raqqa.
Of course, Moscow's bet could eventually prove to be too risky, with negative consequences for the Russian regime. It appears increasingly probable that the Russian plane that crashed in the Sinai was bombed, as the Egyptian branch of ISIS claimed. The Russians are proud of their newfound diplomatic centrality, but they'll be weary of the human cost. The specter of Soviet engagement in Afghanistan isn't that far away. Russians, military or civilians, aren't ready to die so the Assad family can remain in power.
The definition of our regional priorities are best summed up with the expression "squaring the circle." Ideally, any policy should recognize the ISIS threat as a priority without forgetting the criminal character of the Damascus regime. Which, to be sure, means we need a compromise: Assad leaving power is no longer a prerequisite to opening a new round of negotiations, but there can be no deal without his retreat from power.
It's up to Moscow now to convince Tehran.