Rome—Maybe after five years of awful turmoil, tens of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees and vast destruction of cities, giving into Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad is not the worst option for Obama at this point.
He just doesn’t want to let anyone know it. If Assad and so-called moderate rebels ever get to peace talks, Assad will be in a strong position to survive.
To me, it was bizarre to hear the Obama Administration spin on its war making deal with Putin in Syria, the latest in a series of efforts to get some sort of a ceasefire. The agreement is mostly about the U.S. joining Russia to help crush threats to Moscow’s client, Assad. Obama insists that Assad must leave power.
The deal announced the other day by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is confusing, but here are the essentials:
Assad government forces and the rebels are supposed to begin a ceasefire starting as of last Monday. In particular, Assad’s air force is supposed to stop dropping bombs that have mainly harmed civilians and let aid flow into besieged districts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.
The Russians, whose air force has been crucial in keeping rebels at bay, and the U.S., whose aerial attacks have been aimed exclusively at the Islamic State, can keep bombing away beginning in less than a week. That’s a ceasefire?
The two countries will join their air forces to bomb not only the Islamic State but also the group formerly called Jabhat al-Nusrat, now renamed Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham. Ex-Nusra has been an affiliate of al-Qaeda- and also happens to have been the most effective anti-Assad fighting force—far more effective than US-backed groups. For the past five years, the US ignored Nusra’s advances and atrocities.
In short, instead of Russia lining up with the US in some sort of anti-terror campaign, Obama has joined Putin in helping out Assad, with the anti-terror thing just part of the deal.
Certainly, ex-Nusra is a brutal and unsavory group, guilty of tormenting civilians with its cruel version of Islam, its summary executions and repression of all under its rule. Its existence was also a public relations problem for Obama: some of Washington’s self-styled ‘moderate’ rebel allies were and are closely intertwined with Nusra (and hence al-Qaeda) on the battlefield.
Kerry warned groups supported by the US (and a bunch of others not supported by Washington) to drop any attachment with ex-Nusra. He said that, “If groups within the legitimate opposition want to retain their legitimacy, they need to distance themselves every way possible,” from Nusra and the Islamic State.
If they don’t they get bombed, too.
Kerry seemed slightly bewildered by how this new partnership is supposed to work. At one point, he said that Assad could bomb ex-Nusra and the Islamic State so long as the strikes “are agreed upon with Russia and the United States.”
Whoops. That suggested the US was indirectly coordinating with Assad, so Kerry’s spokesman said his boss was “incorrect” and that Assad is not allowed to bomb anyone.
Kerry seemed sensitive to suggestions the President was caving into the Russians. “Going after Nusra is not a concession to anybody; it is profoundly in the interest of the United States to target al-Qaeda,” he said when the deal was announced last weekend.
But of course, it is a concession, otherwise the U.S. would have bombed Nusra much earlier. Anyway, Assad and Putin consider the entire anti-Assad rebellion the work of terrorists, so it’s uncertain they will distinguish much among the insurgents whether they are “marbled” together with ex-Nusra or not. For Obama, it’s easier to defend fighting an Qaeda-linked group than to acknowledge that such a move helps Assad.
It’s been a good summer for Putin and his protégé Assad generally. He picked up help for Assad from Turkey, which is interested in bombing the heck out U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters who had eaten up territory in northern Syria. Heretofore, the Turks had been vehemently anti-Assad to the point of backing the Islamic State, but now seem more centered on killing Kurdish, who they fear would set up an independent country.
By the way, the Kurds were the U.S.’s most robust anti-Assad ally in Syria and eventually were supposed to help kick the Islamic State out of its provisional capital in the town of Raqqa.
In sum, Obama, who predicted that Putin had entered a quagmire in Syria, has now joined Putin in the muck—on Putin’s terms. By the way, the deal made no mentioned of Iran and its client Lebanese militia Hezbollah, both of which are fighting alongside Assad and are effectively in alliance with Russia.
Keeping Assad in power is a big gift to both and each has welcomed the Russia-U.S. deal.
A look at the deal.
A scorecard of the messy Middle East and US failures.