Those vested in the future of Syria have danced the dance of diplomacy ever since the civil war began. They twist and turn as they discuss peace in Geneva, they step and sway through the battlefield. The ideal outcome for President Bashar al Assad and his supporters in Russia is to persuade the U.S.-led coalition backing the rebels to jointly fight against the Islamic State. Such a move would undermine Washington's opposition to the al Assad government and aid Moscow in its efforts to engage diplomatically with the United States on other issues.
It is from this perspective that loyalist attention, and therefore Russian attention, to Islamic State-occupied territory should be viewed. Though there are clear strategic military goals for the recent loyalist offensives against the Islamic State
, enhancing the al Assad administration's legitimacy is certainly also a key objective as peace talks progress.
The overarching contention is whether the existence of the al Assad government undermines or helps the war against the Islamic State. The Syrian government and Moscow understand that Washington's primary goal is the defeat of the Islamic State. The key to success is, therefore, to convince the U.S. government, or at least the American people and the wider world, that the best way to beat the Islamic State is to support the Syrian government.
Washington is aware of this dynamic and remains mistrustful of Russian and Syrian government motives. For many in U.S. policymaking circles, al Assad's presence fundamentally hampers the fight against the Islamic State, leading to assertions that his government foments hostility in Syria, attracts jihadists and drives the rebellion to extremism. Furthermore, although loyalist armies battle the Islamic State, they have just as often attacked rebel forces. Until recently, the Pentagon consistently pointed out that the majority of Russian and Syrian airstrikes were aimed at rebel forces and not at Islamic State targets. Washington holds al Assad responsible for a war that led to the rise of the Islamic State and refuses to work with him.
The loyalist capture of Palmyra over the weekend is not only the latest Islamic State defeat, but it is also a particularly illustrative example of the diplomatic dance in Syria. Damascus and Moscow recognize how visible their victory is, thanks to the historicity of Palmyra. It is no coincidence that at the moment Palmyra was retaken, the head of the Syrian government's delegation in Geneva, Bashar Ja'afari, announced that Damascus was ready to fight with the U.S. coalition against the Islamic State if Washington agreed to work directly with the Syrian government.
Moscow, for its part, continued to laud the Syrian government's war against extremists and invited the United States to join in its efforts to clear Palmyra of land mines, which would of course entail U.S. deployments in Syrian government-held territory. Both the Syrian government and the Kremlin used Palmyra's symbolic significance to amplify the message to Washington and the world: The al Assad government is part of the solution against the Islamic State.
For now, however, the U.S. government refuses to budge and has reportedly already rebuffed the Syrian and Russian proposals. Beyond the belief that the al Assad government undermines the fight against extremism in Syria, other considerations prevent the United States from answering the calls from Damascus and Moscow. Washington is aware of its fragile relationship with other rebel backers, including Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Outright collaboration with the Syrian government would further strain the relationship between the United States and its regional allies. It would also limit the United States' ability to moderate those allies' activities in Syria, including persuading them to withhold man-portable air-defense systems
from the rebels. Furthermore, the United States has remained deeply suspicious of Moscow's desire to leverage the Syrian crisis for concessions
on other matters, especially on Ukraine and the question of lifting economic sanctions against Russia.
The United States must operate in the same space as the Russians and the Syrians. This was easier when loyalist forces were overwhelmingly focusing their efforts on rebel forces, but as the loyalists push north and east, they approach areas in which the United States is most involved. Washington will find it increasingly difficult to avoid direct engagement with Moscow if the rebels and loyalists whom they respectively support end up operating in the same battlefield against the Islamic State. To an extent, this implies a race to secure crucial areas such as Raqqa before the other does so, especially as Damascus tries to secure territory and help its negotiation position in Geneva. Even more pressing for the United States, however, is to ensure progress in negotiations before loyalist advances force Washington to cooperate with al Assad's fighters against the Islamic State, conferring legitimacy onto his government.