PARIS -- As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with his Russian counterparts this week in Moscow to discuss Syria, much of the world is wondering what America's endgame is. But what if we are already witnessing it? What if America's ultimate exit strategy for the Syrian conflict is to have it grind on ad infinitum because there's very little advantage to doing anything else?
Increasingly, it's Russia that has the most to lose from the ongoing hostilities in Syria. What if America has successfully applied the old Soviet-era (and judo) subversion tactic of allowing an opponent to fully follow through with their hardest punch to the point of bringing harm upon themselves, rather than daring to block the blow at one's own risk?
What would America get by ending the Syrian conflict? Not much compared with what it gets from a prolongation. Conflict keeps some of the less savory actors of the region -- al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Iran's Quds Force -- busy fighting and depleting their resources while Israel keeps the whole mess contained. If they're all drawn into Syria for the time being, they're less likely to be blowing up things for kicks on a Friday night.
Meanwhile, various Western security contractors are making a few bucks off black ops. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are in on the anti-Assad action, blowing cash on staging opposition efforts in Turkey, which has long been hoping to score some brownie points in its ongoing bid for European Union membership. Since Qatar is the same nation that blew millions to pay David Beckham to play soccer for a few months in Paris, it's not hard to imagine that it would bankroll the Syrian opposition purely for the entertainment value. Putting this in fiscal perspective, it would be like a normal person paying 10 bucks to see a movie.
Kerry and America would apparently like Russia's help in negotiating a resolution to the conflict. However it responds, Russia cannot win. And over time, its losses can only continue to grow.
Russia has criticized America and its allies for their role in materially supporting the Syrian opposition, for obvious reasons. Russia is Syria's largest arms supplier and has been caught sending weapons to Syria throughout the conflict. Earlier this year, a Russian ship flying the flag of St. Vincent and the Grenadines was found to be carrying ammunition bound for Syria after it was forced to dock in Cyprus during a storm. Russia claims that such shipments aren't illegal -- though they would be if not for Russia repeatedly blocking U.N. Security Council resolutions to impose sanctions against Syria.
While the Russians have a legitimate gripe about Western support of a ragtag band of rebels linked to al-Qaeda, Russia is being equally obtuse. It could have brought Syrian President Bashar Assad to the negotiating table anytime it wanted, and on its own terms, when it was operating from a position of strength. But doing so too early wouldn't have been advantageous, because Russia had been profiting from the conflict. It sells arms to Syria, supplies Hezbollah through Syria and Iran, and makes money off Iran by developing its nuclear program. All that works just fine for Russia as long as the supply chain isn't compromised, as is becoming increasingly the case.
Now that Israel has been able to pinpoint and surgically strike weapons in Syria that are bound for Israeli terrorist foe Hezbollah before they can present any threat to civilians, Russia's cash cow is on life support.
So now, here comes America, asking Russia to intervene by bringing Assad to the table. What does America lose if the Kremlin refuses? Absolutely nothing. One could argue that America's ideal endgame in Syria is a continuation of the status quo. By making Western disengagement a condition of negotiation rather than just dragging Assad to the table, Russia has been checkmated into taking a position that now increasingly runs counter to its own interests.
No matter what ultimately happens in Syria, there will be no happy ending to this story. These are tribal factions hell-bent on killing each other, and whenever the teacher leaves the room, they'll revert back to doing so. It's difficult to imagine a bigger nightmare for Russia than a mix of terrorists and thugs, including members of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, right in their backyard and only a car ride away from the Islamist elements that Russia has struggled to control in the North Caucasus.
Syria is ultimately Russia's problem -- not America's.