Syria: from bad to worse


S P Seth

What went wrong in Syria after a brief ceasefire, negotiated between the US and Russia, that didn’t hold? The ceasefire was intended to enable UN relief supplies to reach some of besieged people in Aleppo and elsewhere for, what looked like, eternity. There was even some hope at the time that the ceasefire might be extended and after that, who knows, there might even be the beginning of some sort of a breakthrough. The brief lull in fighting had became possible because both Russia and the US excluded al-Qaeda inspired/affiliated Al-Nusra Front and IS from its scope, where the US-led coalition and Russia were allowed to continue their operations. In other words, they seemed to have agreed on a shared definition of terrorists, which seemed hopeful.
But this was too good to be true. First, the US-led coalition mistakenly, as they put it, bombed a Syrian position killing, at least, 60 of their soldiers, which might have enabled the regime’s enemies to consolidate and advance their position. And when the Russian side pointed out to the Americans what they had done, the damage was already done with the Assad regime calling it a deliberate act to help its enemies, which led Damascus to call off the ceasefire. It is just unbelievable that after the agreed ceasefire there was apparently no understanding about the exchange of coordinates between the US and Russia regarding the area of exclusion. If this had been the case, the US side wouldn’t have mistakenly bombed the Damascus regime’s forces.
And here is the problem. An assortment of Syrian rebels, with their linkages and cooperation with Al-Nusra front and even IS elements, have a shared objective of getting rid of the Assad regime. The US broadly shares this goal and is supportive of some rebel groups among them. But the complex interplay of who is who among the Syrian rebels and who eventually ends up with US arms, remains an open question. Because the US supports some rebel groups, it is circumscribed in sharing intelligence with Russia about the coordinates of its operations. On the other hand, the Assad regime wants all rebels to be treated as terrorists and dealt with accordingly as a cooperative project, to include the US and Russia. Not surprisingly then that when the US “mistakenly” attacked and killed its soldiers, the Assad regime withdrew from the ceasefire.
And in the midst of it all, the Syrian situation took an even worse turn with attacks on the UN relief convoys with a number of its personnel killed. Which led the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to strongly condemn the act with his remarks: “Just when we think it cannot get any worse, the bar of depravity sinks lower.” And he called the attack on the convoy “sickening, savage and apparently deliberate.” But, as is the case with the savagery of the Syrian conflict, the opposing sides and their external patrons make it even more sickening by starting the blame game. The US seems convinced that it is the Russians and its surrogate, the Bashar regime, while the Russians are pointing the finger at the US and the rebel groups. The tragedy of it all is that in this age of electronic surveillance and imagery, it shouldn’t be difficult to determine what went wrong and, with political will and determination on all sides, to put an end to the ongoing slaughter in Syria.
But it won’t happen, not any time soon. Already, the talks to resume ceasefire between Russia and the US do not seem to be going anywhere. And they are now vetoing each other’s resolution to resolve the situation. The reasons are the same as before, which is that both the patrons, the US and Russia, are themselves a hostage to their local proxies caught up with their respective agendas, like the Assad regime in the case of Russians, and a mix of rebels and jihadis out to overthrow the Assad regime for the US. At the same time, the regional power brokers, like Iran in the case of Assad regime and Saudi Arabia and the likes for the rebels, exercise their own pressure/leverage. For instance, the US on its own and under pressure from the rebels and their regional supporters want Russia to commit to the removal of Assad at some point during political transition, and sooner the better.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had one time suggested that he wasn’t irrevocably committed to Assad but, increasingly, it would appear that there is no viable alternative. Any search for a viable alternative to Assad or to impose one might lead to its collapse, which itself is a nightmarish situation because the rebels/jihadis/terrorists are united only, if one might call it that, to bring down the Assad regime. And if that were to be achieved, there will be another free-for-all creating a situation worse than what is happening now, if one can imagine that. And the beneficiary of that chaos will be IS determined to bring about its own Islamist utopia.
In the circumstances, in the view of the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, the US needs to come around to the idea that President Assad is the only viable partner in the fight against terrorism, calling his army “the single most efficient force fighting terror in Russia.”
Even as the Syrian tragedy is being played out with dire consequences for its people, Turkey is seeking to further exploit the situation on its border by creating a security corridor through military intervention against the Syrian Kurds and their militia, that has played an important role in expelling IS from their enclave. Indeed, Kurds have been the US’ most dependent ally on the ground against the IS in Syria. One doesn’t hear much about their role in the current situation, having been, more or less, sidelined/abandoned by the US for the larger imperative of submitting to Ankara’s ambitions in the Syrian sector, as well as its ruthless repression in the Kurdish-majority southeastern Turkey. As has happened in the past, Kurdish autonomy might become expendable, even as nothing gets resolved in Syria.
In the midst of it all, the US seems quite hopeful that IS will be defeated in Syria and also driven out of their political enclaves in Iraq. This message was recently conveyed to the world by Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after a briefing at the Pentagon where he met US Secretary of Defence, Ash Carter. He cautioned, though, that in the process the western countries might face increasing threat from “lone wolf” attacks in their midst.