Why are US leaders at a loss confronting Syria and Iran?

Sunday 15/05/2016

From the Baltic to the Black Sea, the armed forces of Russia and the United States confront each other in an increasingly aggressive and terrifying series of in-your-face stand-offs. With regard to Syria, however, it is a different story.

Far from threatening or lecturing the Russians, US Secretary of State John Kerry is bending over backward to acknowledge Moscow’s help in putting together the cessation of hostilities agreement and giving the Russians credit for playing a constructive role in trying to settle a civil war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and generated at least 4 million refugees. What gives?

Kerry, on May 10th, said it would have been impossible to achieve the initial ceasefire in Syria without Russia’s help, telling CNN: “We would not have gotten the initial ceasefire without Russia. Tens of thousands of lives were saved.”

Kerry even tried to put a positive and understanding spin on the inevitable division of views between the nuclear powers, with US President Barack Obama determined to force Syrian President Bashar Assad out of power in Damascus and Russian President Vladimir Putin equally determined to keep him there.

“Right now they [Russians] are angling for the political solution they want and it’s not necessarily a workable equation,” Kerry said. “We understand that.”

Kerry insisted on giving Moscow the benefit of the doubt, arguing that Russia had a vested interest in not getting “bogged down” in Syria because it would not want to become “a target” of Islamic extremists or the entire Sunni world.

Close cooperation between Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, was responsible for forcing through the cessation of hostilities agreement in Geneva on February 26th and since then it has proved surprisingly durable. Dozens of additional militant groups have signed on to it.

However, terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Nusra Front are frozen out from the agreement.

Why is the United States so happy to cooperate with Russia in Syria and accommodate its interests there when it remains fiercely determined to maintain the territorial integrity of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Georgia and is committing increasingly large forces to training a new ramshackle army to replace the old one in Ukraine?

First, Obama and his top strategic and military officials are relentless in their denigration of Russia and they remain consistently eager to give Iran the benefit of every doubt.

Second, while Obama and US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter remain confident, however unwisely, that their policy of deterrence and confrontation towards Russia in Europe makes sense and will work, they are at sea about what to do in Syria.

The fiasco in trying to turn the Free Syrian Army into any militarily significant force conceivably cost US Central Command head General Lloyd Austin his dreams of being the next US Army Chief of Staff. He was allowed to serve out his term of duty to a full and predictable chorus of empty praises for a job supposedly well done.

Still, the United States has no credible option except endless chaotic and unfocused air strikes to try to roll back the ISIS forces in Syria and all the laborious successes US-backed forces have managed in Iran threaten to be undone by the latest eruption of Shia mob power spearheaded by Muqtada al-Sadr and his Peace Companies in Baghdad.

In these circumstances, Obama and Kerry have been forced to swallow their pride — and much else — and work with the Russians.

The partnership is by no means an idyllic one. The Syrian military, supported by the Russians, continues to bomb and use heavy artillery against opposition forces that it accuses of being Islamist in and around Aleppo. US negotiators try, usually in vain, to protect them and protest the bombardments.

In this, Lavrov and Kerry resemble an old, squabbling married couple, endlessly nagging each other but incapable of breaking off their relationship either.

Arab leaders and diplomats watching the strange diplomatic dance in Geneva can be forgiven for being both bewildered and alarmed. US policymakers who are so outspoken, so clear and so confident about putting Russia and China in their place in other parts of the world seem indecisive and unsure when it comes to confronting Syria and Iran.

There is good reason for such alarm.