News that Syrian rebels have, at least temporarily, broken the siege of Aleppo is good. Despite the best efforts of Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime to terrorize the city into submission, some 300,000 Syrians will be spared, for the time-being, from the onset of disease and starvation at the hands of a government still permitted to represent Syria in the United Nations.
The bad news is that Syrian nationalist defenders of Aleppo had no choice but to make common cause with the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate whose recent name-change and disassociation from the parent organization are about as genuine and meaningful as the commitment of Bashar al-Assad and his allies to the welfare of the Syrian people. Efforts by opposition nationalists to separate themselves from the Nusra Front have been frustrated by the combination of Russian-led military operations and feckless American diplomacy.
Moscow's objective from the beginning has been to keep Bashar al-Assad in power and make Washington like it. The Obama administration, fixated as it is on doing nothing in Syria that might offend Iran and risk undoing the nuclear agreement, has eagerly lapped-up Russian hints that Assad might someday be expendable. President Obama, projecting his own fears onto Vladimir Putin, even advised the Russian president early-on to avoid a quagmire. Putin has done exactly that, and remains determined to bring what was once Syria's largest city under the control of his Syrian client. Obama is expressing frustration with Russian behavior, wondering aloud if those who seized Crimea and bombed American-supported Syrian rebels are truly serious about being good partners.
Washington understands fully what an asset Assad is for the likes of ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State), the Nusra Front, and other jihadist armed groups. President Obama and his senior foreign policy aides have spoken often and eloquently about regime mass murder and the recruiting boon it offers to other forms of terrorism in Syria and beyond.
Yet the combination of a nuclear deal with Iran and Tehran's desperate desire to keep Assad in power has inspired the administration to divide Syria artificially into two policy baskets: a desultory war against ISIS in the east; and mendicant diplomacy in the west. The former employs a largely Kurdish ground force in conjunction with military aviation to squeeze ISIS gradually as it plans more mass atrocities for Europe and North America. The latter earnestly implores a Russia that bombs civilian hospitals and strafes American-equipped rebel units to muzzle its client and bring its actual behavior into line with its proclaimed anti-terrorism objectives.
Moscow, however, holds Washington in deep contempt. It senses that the Obama administration is in Tehran's thrall, knowing how important Assad is in Iranian eyes to sustaining Hezbollah in Lebanon, and knowing the centrality of the nuclear arms agreement to the foreign policy legacy of Barack Obama.
Does Russia believe that Tehran would walk away from the nuclear deal if the United States suddenly decided to make it hard for Assad to barrel-bomb the defenseless? Probably not. Tehran did not sign the agreement as an act of charity.
What Russia thinks, however, is unimportant. What President Obama thinks is everything. And Iran's adherence to Assad - the poster boy for al-Qaeda recruitment - is that which divides American policy in Syria unnaturally and which encourages Putin to think he can do as he pleases while suffering nothing greater than the occasional sermon about the 'quagmire' that awaits him.
Influential elements within Syria's opposition have tried in recent weeks to interest the United States in a cooperative approach to separating nationalist rebel units in northwestern Syria from the Nusra Front. This initiative would have been fully consistent with Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to subject Russian military targeting to mutual veto and to ground Assad's murderous air force.
What did these opposition elements need from Washington? Pressure from the world's only superpower for a genuine ceasefire - a Russia-Iran-Assad military stand-down - and military assistance for rebel units that would move to displace the Nusra Front. Washington delivered nothing. So the breaking of the Aleppo siege included everyone willing to fight Assad's army and battle the mélange of Shia militias assembled by Iran.
Russia and its allies will not permit this tactical setback to go unchallenged. In the air Russian and regime aircraft will likely resume their largely unchallenged assaults on civilians, with special attention paid to medical facilities. On the ground Iran will do what it can to compensate for Syrian Army 'elite' units more adept at stealing from UN humanitarian convoys than anything else.
In the end, however, nothing good can emerge from this Syrian catastrophe unless civilians receive a modicum of protection from their assailants. How, after all, does one repair to Geneva to negotiate in good faith while one's constituents are being terrorized and vaporized with deliberate intent and forethought by one's interlocutors? And yet the United States, while calling loudly for a diplomatic solution, has been absolutely AWOL as mass homicide descended on Syria and its effects rippled through the region all the way to Western Europe and North America.
Much is made in the media about 'CIA-trained rebel units' deliberately targeted by Russian aircraft. Do these formations not meet a standard of 'vetting' that would permit the provision of shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft weaponry that would give them a fighting chance? In the days following the Assad regime's brutal chemical attack in 2013 an American naval task force was dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean to prepare to engage regime targets with cruise missiles. Might this task force be reconstituted to end the free ride enjoyed by a regime that murders at will, scatters Syrians to the four winds, and makes ISIS and Nusra Front recruiting easy?
Iran surely will not like it if Washington ends its artificial and ineffective bifurcation of Syria policy. The supreme leader will rant and threaten. The foreign minister will moan to his American counterpart about Iran's 'moderates' being undermined by the unprecedented, unprovoked, and menacing protection of Syrian civilians. The nuclear agreement will be used to blackmail Washington and threaten the Obama legacy.
Those of us who support the nuclear agreement can still see Iranian behavior in Syria and elsewhere as the work of a dangerous adversary; work that permits the words 'Iranian moderates' to take one back 30 years to a time when the phrase inspired skepticism and ridicule. Let Iran make its own decisions. The supreme leader, president and foreign minister are all part of the same system; there is no difference between them when it comes to Iran's drive for regional hegemony and its support of the Al Qaeda-inspiring Assad, a man who helped midwife ISIS by supporting its parent (al-Qaeda in Iraq) for years on end and who now sustains it through collective punishment and mass murder.
Aleppo's relief is good. Some of those who participated in it are not. It is all terribly tangled and complex. One thing alone is not complicated: Civilian protection is the required first step to sorting out Syria's toxic politics; civilian protection is the sole portal leading to diplomatic progress. Iranian blackmail and empty Russian assurances should not prevent the United States and its partners from making effective diplomacy possible.
Frederic C. Hof, director at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, served as a special adviser for transition in Syria at the State Department in 2012.