Unless there’s a quick and drastic turn for the better in Syria, the US may reach its moment of truth with Russia. If Washington is simply unable or unwilling to work with Moscow to resolve the conflict, it’s likely that our much-worsened relations with Russia will be irreparable for the foreseeable future.
This would be the very worst of the many undesirable legacies President Obama passes on to his successor come November.
What happened between the ceasefire in Syria Secretary of State Kerry agreed on just 10 days ago with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, and now? A week into the deal, it appears the agreement has done nothing but push the conflict to the very edge of chaos.
Once again, nobody trusts anybody and everybody accuses everybody of violating terms of the ceasefire. The biggest blow to the prospects of success came Saturday when jets from the US–led coalition bombed a Syrian army base in Deir Ezzor, a city under siege by the Islamic State. The Syrian government reported 62 Syrian army casualties and 100 wounded, which Russian officials appear to confirm,
This is hardly what Washington and Moscow want to present at the UN as the General Assembly opens this week in New York City. But the implications here run far deeper than poor cosmetics on a passing occasion.
Several other failures in the offing hang off that one:
• Is the US proving impotent in the fight against the Islamic State? Making common cause with Russia, whose commitment to defeating ISIS is beyond question given the threat of Islamic extremism seeping across it borders, is the only plausible way to get the job done. If this is off the table, there’s no obvious next move.
• While Russia’s relations with Iran extend back centuries, Syria now shapes up as a catalyst for a rare closeness between Tehran and Moscow. This was signaled last month when Russian bombers launched sorties into Syria from an Iranian airfield. The supreme irony here: The Obama administration has long seen the Syria conflict as a chance to deprive Russia of its No. 1 ally in the region—hence its preoccupation with ousting the Assad government in Damascus even after ISIS suddenly emerged as a serious threat in mid–2014.
• Washington’s longstanding strategic ties with Turkey and Saudi Arabia are badly frayed due to differences over the right goals in Syria and how to achieve them. (Both are now making nice with Russia, to make matters worse.) If drift turns to rift in US relations with these two countries, the Obama administration’s clumsiness over the past several years will leave Moscow’s influence in the Middle East waxing as Washington’s wanes.
Doubts about the Kerry–Lavrov deal were widespread even as it was announced. What we have now are the worst of the worries coming to pass.
At the moment, the US and Russia both appear to have failed to discipline their various local allies, as they are pledged to do. The London Daily Telegraph had a disturbing report Friday asserting (and showing with video) that US–backed militias had chased off just-dispatched American Special Forces amid a hail of throaty anti–American chants to the effect that all Muslims must unite against the West’s latest “crusade.”
But the truth as to what’s happening on the ground has never been murkier. Most reports of ceasefire violations—and there are dozens a day—are countered with contradicting reports.
Example: Washington and the local militias it supports say the Syrian Arab Army, Assad’s force, hasn’t withdrawn from the road into Aleppo to allow relief convoys safe passage. Damascus and Moscow assert that this is because rebel militias refuse to retreat from their positions, as required in the Kerry–Lavrov agreement.
Maybe the two sides can’t bring the local forces they back into line and maybe they simply won’t. It isn’t going to matter if this ceasefire flops: The new reality will be that as Obama exits, relations between Moscow and Washington are too poisoned for them to partner even in the face of what’s now the worst crisis since the Cold War’s end.
As to the last Saturday’s bombing of the Syrian base, we can’t listen to the Assad government, which asserts it was intentional. The US says it was an accident, while the Russians have requested an emergency Security Council meeting and are so far withholding judgment.
Regardless of how this shakes out, Washington just took a very big hit. On the ground, suspicions that the US has all along backed ISIS in its determination to overthrow Assad have spread like a California fire. Closer to home, we can’t flinch from a question that’s bitter enough to pose, never mind the answer.
Friday’s bombing also feeds the conspiracy that the now-public breach between State and Defense (and specifically Secretary Kerry and Secretary Carter) is playing out on the ground. Was the attack, in other words, intended to scuttle Kerry’s arduous diplomatic efforts? If anything like this proves true, it will mark a new low of disunity in Obama’s ever-fractious foreign policy.
Here’s a question to ask already: Why has this president insisted on remaining ivory-tower aloof from so many pressing foreign policy matters—signally failing, in this case, to determine a clear, achievable Syria policy and then set it in motion?
The flashpoint peril Syria has now become lies at the doorstep of the White House.
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