When I wrote most recently on Syria, nearly a month ago, I noted that what had been euphemistically–because-legalistically called a “cessation of hostilities” instead of a ceasefire had just about ceased to be a cessation. The Russian intervention/withdrawal spanning the period September 30–February 26 was nothing of the kind, but just a “surge” that might or might not “work” depending on how the Russians and their allies define the term.As many of us suspected back in February, the “cessation of hostilities” was never intended on the Syrian-Russian-Iranian side as a direct prelude to a negotiated settlement but was rather intended as a tactical maneuver—both military and diplomatic, the latter mainly with respect to Europe. Now over the past several days we see the result: The regime side has renewed the war in full, the main aim being the capture of Aleppo.So it ought to be clear now even to unreconstructed “getting to yes” types that the regime side, aided and no doubt guided on the battlefield by the Russians, aims to win the war. Obvious as this is and has been for a while, it is a concept that is hard for many Western observers of a certain kind to credit; it’s been a long time (1991 would be my guess) since the idea, let alone the reality, of actually winning a war has had much purchase here. But that is what’s going on now.Sure, there will probably be a political halo, marked with “Peace” and “Made in Turtle Bay,” lowered onto the regime’s head in due course, but its terms will be terms of surrender in all but name. If the rebels have any honor at all, they will refuse to let us drag them to a signing. Because that is where the Syrian civil war is clearly headed: toward what passes for a victory for our era’s premier mass murderer and his accomplices. Certainly, our sending 250 more Special Forces soldiers to Syria will not make any more of a difference than our vaunted “training” mission did in earlier years. This is a bad joke masquerading as a skinny Band-Aid. Or is it the other way around? I’m not sure.Since the trajectory of Syrian-Russian-Iranian policy has been clear to descaled eyes now for a while, it’s been hard to watch Staffan de Mistura and John Kerry plead for a reinstitution of the ceasefire in hopes that it will serve as an on-ramp to a political settlement instead of a new phase of the war.1 They are, in essence, pleading before those who created a tactical ploy to continue the ploy so that gullible others can go on pretending to believe in it.But that’s Mistura’s job at the UN, where pretty much everything that goes on is one kind of fantasy or another. As for Kerry, he’s plagued with a President who has not, does not, and will not ever have his back on Syria. I wish he wouldn’t come right out and say that “we’re not stupid” when it comes to gauging Russian intentions. If you have to say it, it means you’re worried that too many people are already thinking it…and not without reason. But he otherwise doesn’t have a lot of options. He could of course resign, but he won’t because he knows it wouldn’t do any good.I also wish the President had not weighed in with the pleading, because it just illustrates his fecklessness in a way not helpful to his or our reputation. He’s already told us that caring about reputation and credibility and old-think “establishment “stuff like that is not important. He’s more wrong than right about that, so better to have avoided making a bad situation just a little bit worse for his words. But avoid it he didn’t, alas, proving in a rather ironic way the President’s own point: His credibility is so low that making it a little lower really can’t do much harm.Now, the fall of Aleppo won’t mean the reconstitution of Syria as we knew it before the spring of 2011. It means that we will be closer to a de facto partition of Syria into a rump state to the west and a gray zone to the east.The rump state will be much less Sunni than its territories were just a few years ago as a result of the policy of migratory genocide against Sunni communities, neighborhood by neighborhood, in order to separate rebels from their sources of sustenance. The civilians flee, making it easier to find, kill, and conquer what’s left. That’s why regime forces, or more likely the Russians, bomb hospitals, schools, bakeries, food warehouses, and occasionally mosques. This works at least to some extent, depending on circumstances. It worked for the Russians in a limited way for a while in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and if Afghanistan had been a mainly urban country it might have worked even better. And it worked in Chechnya after that.As for Syria’s eastern gray zone, it could be ungoverned, partially governed, episodically governed, or fairly soon ISIS or Nusra caliphate-“governed.” It could be a scene of vicious internecine combat among Sunni groups, complete with the ISIS mass murder of civilians. It could well be a training and prep zone for terrorists with Western targets in mind. It will be porous to intervention across all its supposed borders. It will be, in others words, a cornucopia of potential hazards for the security of all civilized countries, including—just by the way—Russia, which is displacing the United States as public enemy number one for every pissed-off Sunni Muslim worldwide. At some point, maybe even during this decade, someone will be forced to bring order if not also law to this eastern gray zone. Good luck to them.The regime’s “winning the war” is a designation that should not be taken too seriously or too far. The fall of Aleppo, the headlong demoralization and partial disintegration of the non-salafi rebel opposition, and even the signing of some forlorn and mostly meaningless fake peace accord will not necessarily end the fighting. Jabhat al-Nusra will fight on. So will the Kurds as they see fit within their own ethnic patrimony. Turkey’s dilemmas will therefore not end and could get even worse. The other rebel groups will retain the power to vex Assad and company in his rump. Assad may still be undone by an internal Alawi coup, opening the way for other political options. We just don’t know, and can’t know to any level of specificity, what will happen.But we do already know one thing: The least likely outcome by far is real peace, stability, and serious efforts at refugee resettlement and reconstruction. Surely those million or so newly arrived Syrians within the EU are not headed home; it is far more likely that another million or three will wish to join them, with all that such wishing entails. There must be no illusions about this in Europe, or here in the United States.My dear wife and I have some pretty amusing conversations in the morning from time to time, after the newspapers arrive but before the coffee has done its wondrous work. Case in point: The other day, the news of the bombing of the Aleppo hospital came just about 48 hours before the headlines in both the New York Times and the Washington Post about the Pentagon after-action report on the accidental bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan some months ago. My wife is certainly no snob, but her opinion of the average American’s knowledge of foreign affairs is lower than a carp’s IQ in winter. “Hmmm,” she muttered, “stories about hospital bombings, in foreign places that both start with the letter ‘A’…Lord help those USA Today readers.”Amen, dear. But, as to the rest of you, note please that there is a useful observation lurking in this juxtaposition. When the U.S. military bombs a hospital, it’s a screw-up that brings an investigation, a holding to account, and an apology that’s as meaningful as we can make it under the circumstances. When the Russian military bombs a hospital, it’s deliberate and the perpetrators get high-fives and medals. Czarist, Communist, kleptocratic, or neofascist, it doesn’t matter: Russian autocratic elites behave in a characteristic way, to the everlasting shame and frustration of the many millions of decent Russians over whom they callously lord. About this, too, we should have no illusions.
1 I prepared and delivered an analysis of Russian motives in Syria for the Atlantic Council in December, subsequently published as “Russian Motives in Syria and the Implications for US Policy,” in The Kremlin’s Actions in Syria: Origins, Timing, and Prospects, John Herbst, ed., (Atlantic Council, Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, March 2016). I was queried at the time as to why I had all but ignored the Vienna-Geneva political process. I answered that in my view it had no chance of achieving anything positive because hope for that process was based on an erroneous estimation of motives. In retrospect, I can take credit for saving a little ink and paper.