When I last wrote about Syria, here and here, I was skeptical that the forthcoming cessation of hostilities would stick for long. So were most sentient observers. So was John Kerry, for what that’s worth. Lo and behold, the cessation has worked better than just about anyone expected. Not perfect by a long shot (of which more anon). But better all the same, and of course the surprise begs a question: Why?As to what has ceased and what has not, the short answer is that the regime, backed by the Russians and the standard phalanx of Iranian-supported mercenaries—I’ll call it the Axis for short—has eased up attacks in and on major towns and cities, including Aleppo. But in the countryside, especially around Aleppo and westward toward Idlib, air strikes and ground-based violations of the ceasefire have been much more abundant, and troop and equipment movement by the regime and its allies has been brisk. What appears to be happening is that the Axis is consolidating the gains it made in the roughly two-month period before February 27 and is trying to surround Aleppo for purposes of a future siege, even as the cessation of hostilities makes it difficult for the divided and demoralized non-jihadi opposition to counterpunch in the northwest or anywhere else in the country.As to “why?”, we don’t really know for sure. Perhaps the widely predicted logistical problems the Russians were supposed to have in this unusual expeditionary effort actually emerged, and they needed a timeout for maintenance, retooling, and the rest. Perhaps DIA, which is supposed to monitor things like this, knows for sure, but I frankly have been surprised that at least a few Russian fighters have not tumbled from the sky since late September the same way internal Russian commercial flights tend to from time to time due to poor maintenance, stemming mainly from systemic corruption at all levels. My guess is that Western and Israeli intelligence communities are impressed by the capacity of the Russian military so far to maintain their desired operational tempo without the whole operation coming apart at the seams.No, the “why” question probably has a different kind of answer. As everyone knows, the stated aim of the cessation of hostilities—which, remember, was negotiated solely by outside parties to the civil war, and not directly by any Syrian constituencies—was to set the stage for a negotiated political settlement to the civil war. Staffan de Mistura at the United Nations is in charge of these negotiations, or at least is in charge of the venue whose symbolic uses are supposed to allow the external parties to deliver their clients to a deal. Negotiations are supposed to resume sometime next week. Will they come to anything?It has always been in the power of the regime, and in recent months the Russians, to declare and enforce a ceasefire or a cessation of hostilities (or whatever one wants to call it) whenever they wished to do so. In a limited way, they have over the past ten days wished to do so. It seems to me most likely that the reason lies in a combination of political and military calculations that lives at two levels.Mr. de Mistura is in a really tough spot, and he knows it. The ceasefire might break down for any number of reasons, and if it does, he is out of pocket with his negotiations, and the UN’s capacity to deal with new refugee flows and humanitarian disasters is extremely limited. If it doesn’t break down, it is clear from the reality of the battlefield that the terms of any deal will essentially benefit the Assad regime and its Axis allies. That means that the UN will be giving its blessing, so to speak, to the continued tenure of the premier mass murderer of the past quarter century. And it will be rewarding a Security Council member that has done nearly everything in its power to undermine and try to hijack UN auspices and processes for its own parochial ends.Of course, that kind of deal can only be sealed if others essentially surrender, and that means first and foremost the United States. If the Obama Administration, which boils down to the President himself in this case, believes that any deal in Syria is better than no deal—just as, in truth, he believed that any Iranian nuclear deal was better than no deal, whatever he mouthed in public—then surrender is the order of the day.The Saudis smell this ill wind blowing in their general direction. That is why they are holding massive military exercises in the north of the country. It is as if to say to Washington, if you finally decide to lead in order to head off disaster in the entire region, you will have followers—a coalition for real, rather than one just in theory. That is why they keep saying daily in their state-controlled media that Assad must go at the start of any transition. They are trying to hold the line against the collapse of the U.S. negotiating position. They are starting to sound desperate. You know when the Arabic starts to accumulate certain telltale adjectives.And that is partly because the Russians, on February 27 and thereafter, have made every effort to make it seem as though Russia and America have become new partners in the Middle East and beyond. The incessant propaganda was designed to imply as much blue sky as possible between Washington on the one hand, Riyadh, Ankara, Abu Dhabi, Amman, and the rest, on the other. The Russians also tried to ensnare the Administration into some kind of joint military command focused on ISIS, this going well beyond the joint ceasefire monitoring arrangements that have been established. I get the feeling that, had it not been for strenuous pushback from Ash Carter and others over in the E-ring, the White House and State Department would have signed up for it.The Turks smell the breezes too, but they have handled the matter differently owing to a different calculation of priorities. President Erdogan et al. have not been as patient with Washington as have the Saudis. They have called us out over their premier priority right now, which is the Kurds. They demanded we choose, and without shouting the choice from the rooftops, we did: We claimed we were not choosing even as we chose the Kurds, because the Administration still thinks—and Ambassador McGurk was preening about this just the other day—that we can maul ISIS without dealing with Assad as part of the strategy.And the Administration still thinks, perhaps, that going after the butcher of Syria will queer the bright future straining to be born between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States. You can almost hear the conversations inside the NSC and the White House these past few days: Just look at those wonderful recent Iranian elections…see, we told you so; and so just pay no attention to those IRGC ballistic missile tests that violate the nuclear deal and UNSCR sanctions. You can figure out the rest for yourself.Besides the Saudis, the Turkish military doesn’t want to invade Syria, and it doesn’t want to set up a keep-out zone on the Syrian side of the border that might well morph into a larger invasion. It doesn’t want in general to fight for any AKP honcho, and it’s not a popular thing to do in the eyes of most Turks anyway. (The Turkish military, as pretty much the only institution that has ever really represented the Republic since its birth, cares a lot about what the public thinks of it.) And without Turkish muscle, and of course assuming no American muscle, there either cannot be such a keep-out zone or it will be a zone bound to be quickly overrun by Jabhat al-Nusra. That’s the last thing the Turks need: not just ISIS and the PYD on its southern border, both with nefarious links inside the country, but al-Qaeda as well? No, thanks a lot.So if there is no U.S.-led effort to re-torque the battlefield, neither the Saudis nor the Turks nor anyone else will mount an effort. That means, as already noted, that any settlement which reflects current power vectors inside the country will amount to an Axis victory. And if the remaining rebel groups, “moderate” and salafi alike, try to resist its terms on their own, the Axis can simply resume the war in circumstances made more advantageous by the benefits of the current cessation of hostilities. It will finish off Aleppo, “sanitize” fully northern Latakia Province, and then encircle, besiege, and extirpate Idlib and the countryside. Done deal.Now why would the rebels resist? They can’t win at this point; they can only catalyze more enormities against civilians, and give the Axis more opportunities to engineer the demographic reshaping of the country. My guess is that if a deal is struck sometime this spring, the “moderate” rebels, some of them anyway, will regroup to the east and south, outside the zone of Axis control. That will conduce to the initially informal partition of Syria I wrote about on February 25. The salafi groups, Nusra and Ahrar as-Sham, may well continue fighting for a while, because that is what these groups do. Or they too may withdraw to the east and south sooner or later and perhaps decide to set up a rival caliphate there to the Da‘esh one.Is that all? No, not quite: There is that second level, mooted at the outset, to sketch.I spent a week during the middle of February in Berlin, and while there I had an opportunity to speak privately with several German officials—mainly Foreign Ministry people—and some various and sundry sage observers. When I hypothesized back in September that Russian action in Syria was meant deliberately to worsen Europe’s asylum crisis in order to gain leverage over the European Union and its constituent member-states, several people criticized me for exaggerating Russian moral perversity. What a difference a few months make: normally very sober, very demur German Foreign Ministry types all agree, as of last month, that this is exactly part of the Russian game plan. That doesn’t prove it to be so, of course; it only proves that the sort of people the Russian leadership wants and needs to gull believe it to be so.This is to say that, perhaps, the Russian leadership calculated that it was time to ease up on the military pedal in Syria because the wider diplomatic fallout was starting to turn counterproductive. The Russians can smell European wind just as Middle Easterners can smell American wind, and that wind told them as follows: The EU appetite for continuing sanctions over Ukraine was fast waning anyway, thanks in large part to the continued catastrophe that is the Ukrainian government; so why keep battering Syria when overdoing it might cause some European governments, maybe again the one in Berlin, to suddenly locate their spines?It is difficult to impossible for democrat foreign policies to control potentially useful oscillations between being hard-assed and mounting charm offensives. Democratic governments have a multiple audience problem in this regard that is all but insurmountable, at least in peacetime. But autocratic regimes—the Chinese and Iranian ones as well as the Russian one—are often pretty good at this sort of thing. Think fishing. You hook a big one, but you can’t just reel it in by dint of muscle alone. You have to play the fish, giving it line and then yanking it back, and you do it repeatedly until the fish becomes tired and demoralized. Then you net it, whack it on the head, gut and scale it, and get it ready for supper. Please don’t make me spell this metaphor out any further.Time will tell if the Europeans will buy an Assad-friendly settlement in Syria, and if they will soon get terminal sanctions fatigue over Ukraine. If they do, the remainder of the Obama Administration will be no impediment to their doing so. I suspect this is what the future looks like in these two related domains, and I suspect the Russian leadership will want to close out those portfolios to the extent possible before the end of the Administration. That is because, as TAI editorial board member Anne Applebaum put it a few days ago (three times she put it, for effect): “Elections are funny things. And electorates are fickle.”But one “why” deserves another: Why is the Obama Administration determined, still, to do what amounts to nothing in Syria? Why has it been willing to let the Iranians and the Russians call all the significant shots? Why in this case, if not also several others, has it apparently confused “leading from behind” (which is good work if you can get it) into “sitting on one’s behind”?No one really knows, of course, even as I and many others have speculated about the reasons over the past several years. My more or less settled view at this point is that the President simply doesn’t think anything vital to U.S. interests is at stake in Syria and, even more broadly, in the Levant. He has for a while now disparaged those who have told him that “the Russians are winning” in Syria and the region, replying, in effect, “winning what?” He presumed a Russian quagmire this past autumn, and he doodled during 2012–13 Principals Committee meetings over Syria; he just doesn’t care to focus on the matter because he thinks it’s both unimportant in the long run and accident-prone in the short run. If Obama over- or mis-learned the lessons of Iraq, his own desultory experience in Libya only reinforced his allergy to getting the United States involved in Syria. Alas, he failed to reckon the potentially high costs of inaction, though many an adviser warned him. And now it’s too late to do anything that isn’t very risky and increasingly dangerous to boot. One can only wonder what the President will say about all this in his memoirs.Now, Cold War veterans and those of us who do foreign policy for a day job—especially regional experts—mostly want to throw up our hands at this naivety. Doesn’t this guy realize, we like to say, that Syria isn’t a one-off, that major and protracted international crises are never just one-offs at all, but accumulate into a cascade of perceptions that give shape to acute systemic disorder? As Robert S. Vansitaart wrote in his memoir, The Mist Procession (1958),“There are moments which unmistakably portend slaughter.” This may be one of them.For many years we have all had to listen to those—offshore balancers, anti-neocons, and avowed isolationists, both American and not—who have claimed repeatedly that the United States assumed too much, did too much, erred too much, and above all thought much too much of its own righteousness. Back off, they have advised, and let the balancing balm of nature take its benign course. Some of these calls for restraint resonated common sense and had considerable appeal; as editor of The American Interest I’ve published some of them myself. Well, now we know what a determinedly restrained U.S. global posture looks like, what it produces. It’s not a laboratory-quality controlled experiment; there can be no such thing. But it’s about as close as one can get, and it’s close enough, as we say, for government work. Like what you see, o ye critics of yore?Now, in the fullness of time, as I have wondered in print before, Barack Obama and his sidekick Ben Rhodes may prove to be right. The transition from pax Americana to a better balance may be a bit messy, sure, but in the long run it’ll all turn out for the best. It could be. But as Keynes said—though he clearly did not mean it in quite this way—in the long run we’re all dead.Syria will still be there, in one form or another, after the Obama Administration has passed into the history books. The civil war may or may not be over in January 2017, but peace and reconstruction, if there is any, will at best be in its fragile infancy. So the next Administration, and the next President, will not be rid of this portfolio. And it will be, possibly, in a position to make what amounts to an inherited diplomatic defeat even worse.How? Imagine that you are President Whomever, and you are looking out the window of the White House on a snowy morning in early February 2017 when an aide comes in to inform you that ISIS—which Brett McGurk has not quite managed yet to extirpate—has just pulled off a spectacular terrorist atrocity in downtown London, or Paris again, or maybe New York City. What do you do?Well, one thing you could do—and which Barack Obama could have done had he wished—is order U.S. troops on the ground to smash ISIS in Raqqa, Mosul, and environs. It would be popular and politically useful, and there is no question that U.S. military forces could make a lot of noise, break a lot of stuff, and kill a lot of “terrorists.” But unless we were willing to stay in the area in force for many years to do cross-border nation-building—really state-creating—in Sunni-inhabited territory belonging formerly to both Syria and Iraq, which parties would benefit most from a punitive U.S. campaign against ISIS? Answer: the Axis—namely the Assad regime, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Russia. We all know the saying about adding insult to injury; this would be something like adding stupidity to passivity. So instead of the Russians taking care of our ISIS problem for us, as they have slyly but disingenuously intimated in recent months, we could end up taking care of their ISIS problem for them!Ha! And you thought things could not get worse. They can, and they might.
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Published on: March 8, 2016
Middle East AflameMeanwhile, in Syria…
What’s been happening in Syria since the “cessation of hostilities” began to take effect about ten days ago? Both less and more than meets the eye of the casual observer.