Oh dear, another day, another “cessation of hostilities” in Syria that is likely to be anything but. How come?As news reports make abundantly clear, the main external protagonists are supposed to deliver their clients and proxies to a cessation of hostilities (legally distinct from a “ceasefire.”) That means the U.S., Saudi, and Turkish governments have to deliver their guys, and the Russians and Iranians have to deliver their guys—the Assad regime, such as it is, Hizballah, and a rat’s nest of Shi’a militias.The real problem, however, and the essence to understanding what is probably going on, forces one to grasp the military geography of the civil war at this point. The Russians say that all anti-regime forces are “terrorists,” and we do not agree—but we do agree that al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is a terrorist organization. Unfortunately, while in most of the country anti-regime forces are geographically isolated enough to distinguish in terms of targeting from the air, in the northwest of the country, defined as all the territory north of Hama and west of the Euphrates—specifically, around Aleppo and westward toward Idlib—they are not. Nusra is mixed in with other groups in this fight, the fight that will likely determine the outcome of the war.That means that the Russians and the regime will likely prosecute the war where it matters strategically, while using any cessation of hostilities elsewhere in the country to do three things: shift more forces to the key battle; prevent the rebels from gaining territory in the south and around Damascus while the fight for Aleppo and Idlib goes on; and by allowing dribs and drabs of humanitarian aid to reach places of minor strategic importance, to let the Obama Administration and other credulous types delude themselves into thinking they’ve done something noble. Humanitarian relief as political eyewash, in other words.Loyal readers will recall, perhaps, that in “Follyanna?: A Coda,” written right after the earlier “truce” was agreed, I predicted that the Russians would delay clarification and hence implementation pending the fall of Aleppo. Check that box, folks: February 12 came and went, and nothing happened. Well, same goes for this newest “partial” truce: February 27 will matter or it won’t matter depending on how the fighting goes. And on this score we have some decidedly mixed news.The regime, with bounteous Russian and Iranian proxy help, has been making steady gains. Those gains have taken the form of a version of migratory genocide: bomb and starve civilians, weaponize refugee flows, in this case aimed first at Turkey, and accelerate the movement by destroying all hospitals and other medical facilities. But just yesterday Da’esh forces cut an important supply line road, for the second time since October, that connects regime-associated forces in Aleppo with the rest of regime-held territory. (Unfortunately, severing that connection also makes it near impossible to get food into the city for civilians.) The regime-associated forces can take the position on the road back, of course, but that may take some time—hence yet another question mark looms over the February 27 implementation date.Unlike the ill-fated February 12 “agreement,” this time the Russians, in the person of Vladimir Putin himself, initiated the contact, and in a telephone call yesterday he and President Obama directly negotiated details. The Russian rhetoric about the agreement has been voluble; the White House has said little and the State Department spokesman is clearly in no celebratory mood. Neither is Secretary Kerry, not this time around. No Follyannish tomfoolery is to be seen anywhere along the Potomac on this rainy Tuesday.Why did the Russian leadership do this, and why in this manner? Well, of course we don’t know for sure. But one fact is beyond dispute (I should hope): If the Russians really want a ceasefire, they can deliver the Assad regime to it and the whole business can be over and done with within five days or less. They don’t need us for this purpose. All the opposition groups influenced by the U.S., Saudi and Turkish governments are willing to stop fighting, because all the groups and governments want to prevent Aleppo from falling into regime hands. If Aleppo is de facto outside of the deal, they have other reasons to cease hostilities, namely to get food and medical care to tens of thousands of innocent victims of this horrid war.So again, why did Vladimir Putin wish to drag the U.S. government into this business when, strictly speaking, it is not practically necessary? Several possibilities spring to mind—my mind, anyway.First, it could be that Putin simply wishes to humiliate the Administration again…..when the hostilities do not in fact really cease and the Russians gain ground militarily in the interim. He does this sort of thing for its own sake, and because it is useful to him domestically. Everything Putin does he does looking over his shoulder at Russian opinion, broadly construed, since he has been such a disastrous steward of the Russian economy and political system.Second and more likely, Putin may wish to show all parties—and I suspect especially the Turkish leadership—that the Obama Administration is both weak and utterly unreliable as an ally. Putin’s initiative comes amid deeply strained U.S.-Turkish relations—it’s strained partly over the Kurds, but the agenda is chock full. By making it seem that the U.S. government is partnering with the Russian government, it tells the Turks that they are all alone and hence better bend the knee in Moscow’s general direction.This, in turn, is part of a broader Russian strategy that at all points endeavors to weaken U.S. ties with allies, not to exclude NATO allies beyond Turkey. And this is why hopes for the success of the so-called Minsk process are about as delusional as hopes for the Vienna process. Not going to happen, folks; free and fair elections cannot be held in a conflict zone, and the Russian leadership has no intention of rendering eastern Ukraine anything but a conflict zone for the time being.And still the Russian leadership seeks to weaponize the refugee flow out of Syria, with the first target being Turkey and the next targets being the core member states of the European Union. The aim here, among several, is to turn European politics sharply to the right, and by so doing to undermine NATO’s capacity to resist Russian policy in Ukraine and beyond, further to the west. The Russian leadership sees the Syrian and Ukrainian fronts as politically intertwined, and leverages each against the other. Putin can walk and chew gum at the same time, in other words. This doesn’t sound like much of a skill, or much of an advantage, but it can be when your counterparts are unable to do the same.So is it a mistake for the Obama Administration to be pursuing ceasefires or cessations of hostilities or whatever you want to call them in Syria? As Secretary Kerry has said, it usually takes three or four bites at the apple before you succeed at these things—but if Kerry thinks the Minsk process, from which the U.S. government essentially excluded itself, ranks as a success, then one can only wonder how he reckons a failure.It’s a tough call. Of course we want to alleviate as much suffering in Syria as possible. Decent people will be willing to swallow pretty hard to get that done. But at what price? At the price of turning the other cheek to let a mass murderer stay in power? At the price of letting a thuggish and kleptocratic Russian regime essentially oust the United States from the Levant, with the surcharge of degrading all U.S. alliance relationships in and beyond the region in the process?Alas, again one can forgive Secretary Kerry his optimistic obsequiousness before the ministrations of Sergei Lavrov. What other option does he have with a President who refuses to put any real skin in the game? He could resign, of course, and he might. But how that would help the situation is unclear. So the question at this level ends up being roughly as follows: How many bait-and-switch ceasefire agreements can one Secretary of State endure without becoming a diplomatic eunuch? Well, we’re going to find out, it seems.Syria is a godawful mess, no matter how you look at it. The meaningful moving parts are irritatingly numerous, and mainly unfriendly.First, we have a budding Iranian-Russian strategic alliance that promises nothing but trouble. Note that, as I have indicated before, the Russians can just as easily return Iranian nuclear materials in the context of a verification crisis as they carried the stuff away, and they have recently contracted to help Iranian nuclear science and engineering efforts. They seem in this matter to be sticking their boot directly up the July 14 nuclear agreement’s posterior. They have also very recently contracted to sell lots of weapons—main battle tanks, fighters, air-defense systems, and more—to Iran in violation of both the nuclear deal and UN Security Council prohibitions. And what do they or anyone else expect the Obama Administration to do about it in its last 10-11 months in office? Absolutely nothing of any consequence.Second, we have continuing and massive state collapse—in Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria—and the emergence of still inchoate successor entities, notably among the Kurds, but it does not and will not stop there. Looking a bit ahead, the sun is not about to shine in Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria, and Jordan, to name just the four most vulnerable candidates for the next huge Hobbesian mess in the Arab world.Third, the unprecedented U.S. rescission from the region itself constitutes a major moving part of the scene, and it in turn gives rise to the fourth: All U.S.-aligned Sunni states are in near panic as a result of American self-deterrence. The wriggling about of the Saudi government, one day seeming to resolve to send troops into Syria, the next backing off when the intended diplomatic tripwire fails to ensnare the Americans, is one case in point. The Turks are in an even deeper pickle. They desperately need to staunch the refugee flow from the south, but the Obama Administration refuses the idea of a humanitarian zone on the Syrian side of the border. If the Turks try to create that zone by themselves, and get into a fight over it with the Russians, they have no expectation now that the United States will have Turkey’s back. That completely deflates the credibility of Turkish threats, and everyone knows it: Erdogan cannot do anything. He can’t even turn to ISIS for help, because ISIS and a variety of Kurdish groups are now busy setting off bombs inside Turkey.Fifth, and maybe the most depressing of all, it has become clear that only Sunni political Islam is capable of mobilizing Arab politics at the popular level, whether in Syria or anywhere else in the Arab world. This is not terribly surprising: In a war, any war, political moderates tend to become rapidly extinct, one way or another. But it is a most unhappy state of affairs, to be generous about terminology.This is the broader context within which we must answer the forgoing question: Is this ceasefire dance with the Russians a good idea? Well, it might be if after the fifth bite at the apple we get some relief, whatever the price. But the price keeps getting higher with every bite, and we may end up drowning with no apple in hand. Put a bit differently, the longer-term costs of following this path could end up being more than we should be willing to bear. Now, realists have no problem dealing with the devil; we’ve done it before because we had to, and it is right to identify lesser as opposed to greater evils because, as Amos Oz once said, “Whoever ignores the existence of varying degrees of evil is bound to become a servant of evil.” This is true, of course. Hence, there is nothing realistic about giving mass murderers and their supporters a pass if the murdering goes on and on. There is nothing realistic about becoming a servant of evil, and that is the danger here.The biggest bait-and-switch proposition the Russians are dangling before us may be the most dangerous one of all. It is one that has yet to be stated in so many words, but President Putin is hoping, I think, that we will eventually figure out what is supposedly on offer. It is, in simplified form, this: We Russians will take care of your ISIS problem for you—we will seize Raqqa and kill these crazy bastards in due course—but only after and if you allow us to save the Assad regime in all the territory of Syria the regime wishes to control, and if you stay out of the way of the developing Russian relationships with Iran and the Kurds.Is this a proposition the Obama Administration should embrace on its way into the history books? It’s tempting. Nothing else the Administration will do promises to defeat ISIS, and in their private honesty all Administration principals have to know that by now. Anything kinetic the Administration might do raises the specter of a confrontation with Russia, with all the morbid scenarios one can imagine ruining everyone’s sleep. And if ISIS can be destroyed before November, the Administration might even be able to portray the outcome politically as a masterstroke of multilateralism and “leading from behind.”But what if we sign on and then the Russian leadership doesn’t follow through? What if it is content to leave a divided Syria divided, and not stoke to excess the ire of the entire Sunni world against Russia? What then?Wait and see: This mega-sized Russian bait-and-switch offer will likely take a more explicit if still largely private, diplomatic shape in coming weeks. And if President Obama falls for it he will go down in history as the most gullible and gutless American President since James Buchanan. That’s not company he should want to keep.
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Published on: February 23, 2016
Follyanna? - Coda #2Ceasefire or Bait-and-Switch?
Just what are Russians playing at with the most recent peace push in Syria?