Amid big power rivalry, Syrian peace is harder to find
BEIRUT - The Syrian ceasefire that took effect September 12th is a dead duck. An attack on a UN aid convoy outside the northern city of Aleppo, the epicentre of this most savage of Middle Eastern wars, the night of September 19th halted an initiative that was seemingly doomed before it began.
There are suspicions that the attack, purportedly by Russian or Syrian warplanes, may have been payback for an air strike carried out September 17th by the US-led Western coalition in which nearly 100 Syrian soldiers were killed in Deir ez-Zor in north-eastern Syria. US officials said it was an accident. Conspiracy theorists in Damascus think otherwise.
Repeated violations of the ceasefire, largely attributed to Russian or Syrian government forces, have deepened US suspicions that Moscow and Damascus seek only to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad’s position. They have an eye on a post-conflict transitional government headed by the Syrian president that will essentially do Moscow’s bidding.
In this climate of international mistrust, heightened by the divergent US and Russian objectives in Syria, the prospect for diminishing, let alone ending, the violence is fading.
Any attempt to stitch together a new cessation of hostilities will be more difficult. Given US President Barack Obama’s reluctance to get dragged into the Syrian maelstrom before his second term ends, the chances are he will be willing to make more concessions to Moscow and leave his successor to clean up the mess.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met at the UN headquarters in New York on September 21st, effectively blaming each other for the collapse of the ceasefire.
The Syrian Army had declared that dead on September 19th. There are many reasons for this, but according to regime sources in Damascus, the primary cause was the US air strike on Deir ez-Zor.
The Russians and the regime believe that the attack could not have been an accident. The sources stressed that behind locked doors the Russians and Assad’s inner circle are firmly convinced the attack was the work of US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter aimed at sabotaging Kerry’s September 9th agreement with Lavrov.
Conspiracy theories like this are almost a way of life in the Middle East but Carter has been highly critical of the September 9th ceasefire agreement and said the United States was giving too much to Moscow in exchange for too little.
Some in the US administration say the deal was lopsided in Russia’s favour, while others attest it is illegal because a US law passed in 2014 prohibits any military cooperation with Russia following the Crimea invasion.
It was clear there were deep divisions within the US administration regarding the ceasefire, mainly on grounds that it benefits the Russians and thus Assad. Obama, however, saw the deal as a good step forward because it could achieve some results, however minimal, such as getting humanitarian aid to the civilians trapped in Aleppo.
The failure to relieve their suffering was another key reason for the collapse of the ceasefire. The Syrian Army was supposed to open a humanitarian corridor to allow a UN convoy of 31 trucks carrying aid for 78,000 people into the besieged rebel-held eastern sector.
However, after withdrawing, the troops moved back, claiming they were being attacked by Islamist forces, though it is more likely the Syrian move was in response to the US strike on Deir ez-Zor.
Whatever the cause, sources in Damascus and Beirut say that what destroyed the deal — for now anyway — was the United States’ refusal to place three powerful rebel groups, including the Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sham and the Saudi-supported Jaysh al-Islam, on the list of terrorist groups to be targeted by joint US and Russian air strikes.
These sources say that, despite the bitter recriminations being hurled by all sides, the unspoken belief in Damascus is that there is hope the ceasefire agreement can be resuscitated with assurances from Russia despite US misgivings and concern about divulging operational intelligence to the Russians while getting nothing in return.
That will be easier said than done amid the mutual accusations of bad faith but the Russians hold the high cards — and the military muscle — in Syria, and Russian President Vladimir Putin can afford to toss Kerry a few bones to keep Obama quiet.
The problem will be convincing the Pentagon and the CIA, where senior officials say Russia’s objective is to prop up Assad’s wobbly regime at every turn, a key element in Putin’s vision of reviving Russian influence in the Middle East, while proclaiming Moscow’s earnest intent to crush the Islamic State.
There are key officials in the White House and the State Department who take a long-term view of the Syrian imbroglio and favour negotiating with Moscow rather than chancing an escalating proxy war or even direct confrontation with an expansionist Putin.
Outside intervention by the United States, Russia, Iran, the Europeans, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others has added another lethal layer of complexity and has undoubtedly kept the war going.
Turkey’s military intervention on August 24th underlined the perplexing cycle of constantly shifting alliances in the Syrian war which make diplomatic efforts to end the carnage, in which up to 400,000 people have been killed, so profoundly difficult.
Outgoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as much following the destruction of the UN aid convoy near Aleppo September 20th. “Powerful patrons that keep feeding the war machine also have blood on their hands,” he said.
But Moscow shows no sign of easing off its hard-hitting policy of keeping Assad in power for its own strategic objectives. The Syrian regime continues to blatantly violate ceasefires and internationally accepted rules of engagement by hammering civilian targets or starving opposition-held towns to terrorise its own people. It has repeatedly singled out medical centres and humanitarian aid operations.
“It appears that the Syrian regime now enjoys a sense of utter impunity,” the Guardian, a liberal British daily, said September 20th. “It has nothing and no one to fear. Neither Bashar Assad nor his forces have any reason to believe they will be held to account for their actions.”
The main problem is that there is no clear-cut concept of what a post-war Syria — its historic cities reduced to rubble, the country torn into competing power centres and half its pre-war population of 23 million driven from their homes and into poverty — has yet emerged. And until one does, there is little prospect of the bloodletting coming to an end.
The kaleidoscope of competing forces in this most contrary of Middle Eastern conflicts is ever changing as outside powers jockey for position to advance their own interests at the expense of the hapless Syrians.
Even China is muscling into the seething mass of intrigue, with an offer to train Assad’s army, something Moscow and Tehran would fiercely oppose.
The pursuit of a transitional post-war plan is also blurred by the constant tensions within all these armies and militias, with the jihadists and the Kurdish peshmerga emerging ever-stronger. All these rival forces are in constant motion, jockeying to improve their positions in any diplomatic manoeuvring that may ensue — although the prospects in that direction appear increasingly slim.
“None of the external actors seems to be fighting with quite the same purpose as the others,” observed John Jenkins, executive director of the Middle East department of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London and a former British ambassador to Syria.
“No one is articulating a vision of what a post-conflict Syria should look like: perhaps because there isn’t one, except the harsh, reductionist versions offered by Islamists… The problem is not that borders are disappearing but that some states are fragmenting within these borders.”
This, Jenkins noted in an analysis published by the New Statesman of London in early September, “provides other states with an excuse to colonise the hollowed-out husks of their neighbours in ways that might prove far more enduring than the international settlements of the 1920s”. Then Britain and France, the first world war victors, carved up the Middle East between them in what proved to be the last hurrah of their respective empires.