Why Obama vs. Putin Spells Doom For the Syrian Refugees

On August 7, prompted by Russia’s decision to grant NSA leaker Edward Snowden asylum, President Obama announced he was canceling his upcoming visit to Moscow, where he was scheduled to meet one-on-one with President Putin and hopefully restart a stalled U.S.-Russian relationship. The move comes a month before Russia hosts the G-20 and is the latest development in the case of Snowden, which has evolved into a major diplomatic problem for the United States. Following the announcement, Obama received strong bipartisan support from members of congress and the media. However, despite enthusiasm within Congress for a firmer approach to the Kremlin, Obama and Putin’s falling out could have global repercussions that many Americans find disturbing.

Chief among these is its impact on the more than 2.5 million Syrians who have fled their homes since the outbreak of violence in 2011. With Obama ruling out unilateral action to oust Bashar al-Assad due to concerns about getting sucked into another land war in the Middle East, and Russia and China blocking action through the UN Security Council, the conflict in Syria has devolved into a proxy war between many interested parties. As such, it has become clear that the only way the violence will end is to either wait until one side crushes the other or for Washington and Moscow to mediate a negotiated peace. With no end to the conflict in sight, the Syrian refugees' best hope has become negotiations, which have always had a slim chance of success but now are even less likely to succeed.

As one of the most powerful of Damascus's few backers, Russia has the ability to bring Assad to the negotiating table.  On the U.S. side, Washington has the clout to bring along Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies that are supporting the Syrian rebels in a battle for influence against Iran. However, hopes for a negotiated end (always a long shot due to Moscow's strategic interests in Syria) are now even less likely due to the growing bad blood between the U.S. and Russia. While American and Russian officials have worked to emphasize that Obama's decision to cancel his visit has not derailed the entire relationship, and ephemeral plans for a U.S.-Russian brokered meeting between the rebels and the government in Damascus still exist (months after first being broached), the reality is that now both sides have the excuse to do nothing that they have always wanted.

Specifically, the simple fact is that the Obama administration does not believe the conflict in Syria is of major strategic importance to the United States and has been looking for an excuse to avoid doing anything about it since it started in early 2011. Similarly, Moscow prefers to wait and hope its support for Assad pushes the scales enough in his favor for him to crush the rebels. The plans for an international conference are almost certainly at this stage in the game a stalling tactic, as both sides simply wait and hope that time brings a solution to a crisis they both want to disappear. The longer Washington and Moscow can point to a possible peace conference means less time being forced to confront the problem. And since the recent row between the United States and Russia over Snowden has dampened expectations for future U.S.-Russian cooperation, there is a good chance that the conference could continue to act as a scapegoat for inaction for many more months.

The biggest losers in this new normal are the Syrian refugees, whose ranks continue to swell and stretch the capacity of Syria’s neighbors to the brink. With hopes for an end to the conflict now at their lowest in months, the best the refugees can hope for is continued humanitarian aid from donor countries and easier access to asylum in countries willing to welcome them.  Any expectations of being able to return to a Syria at peace have, for the moment, been sidelined by the growing rift between Obama and Putin.