Or he bamboozled himself.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signaled Russian bellicose intent when, in the middle of the ceasefire period, he said that US-backed rebels had failed to separate themselves from the Nusra Front, a terrorist group, and so Russia would have to bomb them. If Moscow had any subsequent hesitation, the attack by US jets on forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, killing some 60 government soldiers, provided Putin with a green light.
The Obama Administration said the air strike was a mistake. The Russians quickly bombed an aid convoy near Aleppo and its Aleppo demolition derby was on.
The Russian tactics in Aleppo date at least to Moscow’s 1999-2000 siege of Grozny, the capital of then-breakaway Chechnya. The siege, which included both bombing and heavy artillery, had the dual purpose of flushing out civilians and guerrillas, and anyone left in the city was dead meat. That’s what’s going on in Aleppo.
Islamist-inspired insurgents are in the east side of Aleppo and that’s the target of what might be the heaviest bombing of any city in the Middle East, ever, including America’s 2003 bombing of Baghdad and Israel’s 1982 bombing of Beirut. Congratulations, Putin! You’re number One!
Staying out of Syria, where Obama thought a quagmire lurked, was the President’s rationale for not getting deeply involved, lie for instance, by setting up a refugee safe zone early in the war. He feared defense of such a haven would require US air intervention. Of course, Obama ended up bombing anyway (just the Islamic State, though) without much effect. Meanwhile, refugees flooded into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and, last year, Europe at the invitation of Germany’s Angela Merkel. Congratulations, Obama!
Washington’s haphazard policy has left Secretary of State John Kerry with the unenviable task of getting down on his knees and begging Russia to stop. But Putin unabashedly aims to prop up Assad and since, with his help, Assad is currently winning, he has no reason to desist. In Russia’s view, ceasefires are for losers.
Iran was somehow left out of Kerry’s supplication diplomacy even though Tehran oversees its own affiliated militias on the ground in Syria and keeps arms and money flowing to Assad. If Kerry approached Tehran it would make people maybe notice that the US-Tehran nuclear weapons deal seems to have emboldened Iran in its regional foreign policy. It could carry on minus the distraction of a possible Israeli air strike on its atom facilities.
A year and a half ago, Obama predicted that the nuclear deal indeed would not heal the “deep divisions” between the US and Iran, including “its support for proxies who destabilize the Middle East.” Obama said, “We will remain vigilant in countering those actions.” It turns out, that’s all he’s doing. Remaining vigilant.
It seems to me that Obama, or more likely, his successor, has three options:
He can continue to do as he is now, intervening here and there and thus consigning Syria to a slow-drip Assad victory anyway as destructive warfare continue. This option has the domestic political advantage for Obama of preserving the fiction that he doesn’t go to war. Somehow this myth is still at large in the US, though he’s bombing five other countries besides Syria–Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan– in case you haven’t noticed.
Or, Obama can try to match the Russians by attacking the Syrian army (Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons would be a ready excuse), showing Moscow that it’s client can’t win so easily after all and it would be better to go to peace talks right away. This, of course, would risk an open collision with Moscow, perhaps in the air. And remember, Obama doesn’t want to get embroiled in Syria very much. He won a Nobel Peace Prize, after all.
Or Obama can throw in the towel, stop doing anything at all and effectively give way to Assad as the lesser of many evils. Let Russia wipe out the Islamic State, if they can. Such a decision would surrender an unhappy Sunni Muslim population, largely centered in Syria’s marginalized (and now battered) cities and rural areas, to an inevitable post-war crackdown and long-term police state. Lots of refugees might well refuse to go back. Critics and supporters of Obama would complain that such an option ruins American credibility, the great bogeyman of US foreign policy failures. On the other hand, what credibility does Obama have in managing Middle East crises?
Me, I want the war to end. Maybe I’m off-base–but it’s hard to think of an aftermath worse than the awfulness that has crushed Syria for the past five years. If Assad stays on, so be it.
Haaretz heaps scorn on Obama.
In case you were wondering why the ceasefire wasn’t.