As the Syrian ceasefire arranged by the United States and Russia teeters on the brink of collapse, it’s clear that the main problem lies in Washington. Moscow’s goal has never been in doubt: it wants the regime of Bashar al-Assad to survive. The Obama administration has been reluctantly moving towards the same conclusion, but it simply can’t admit it, even to itself.
The Russian government bitterly condemned the American air strike that killed sixty to eighty Syrian army personnel on Saturday, but everybody knows that air strikes sometimes hit the wrong people. It was a mistake, that’s all, and the Russians really understand that – but it was a mistake that tells us a lot about how far the US has moved.
Until recently the United States, still formally pledged to overthrow the Assad regime, would not attack Islamic State troops if they were fighting the Syrian army. (That’s why Islamic State captured the historic city of Palmyra two years ago: the US air force would not strike the long and vulnerable IS line of communications across the desert, because that would have been “helping Assad”.)
But the US air attack that went astray at Deir es-Zor last weekend was targeting Islamic State troops who were in direct contact with the Syrian army. It’s because the two sides were so close together that the planes hit the Syrian troops by mistake. American diplomats still deny it, but the US is now willing to help Assad, at least sometimes.
The strategic calculation that has driven US Secretary of State John Kerry into this uncomfortable position is brutally simple. If Assad’s regime does not survive, then the extreme Islamists will take over all of Syria. The fantasy of a “third force” in Syria, made up of democracy-loving non-Islamist rebels who could defeat both the Islamists and Assad, has died even in the US State Department and the Pentagon.
The “moderate” rebels that the United States has backed for so long make up no more than ten or fifteen percent of the real fighting strength of the anti-Assad forces, and most of them are actually allied to the Islamists. In fact, the “moderates” wouldn’t survive long without their Islamist alliance – so it’s time for Washington to abandon them.
The ceasefire terms show that Kerry has implicitly accepted that logic, for they demand that the Syrian government and the “moderates” stop shooting and bombing, whereupon the American and Russian air forces will cooperate in bombing the Islamists. And the targets will not only be Islamic State but also the al-Qaeda-linked group that was known until recently as the Nusra Front.
The Nusra Front saw this coming, so last month it changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of Syria) and said that it has cut its ties with al-Qaeda. (An al-Qaeda spokeman said that the terrorist organisation understood the Nusra Front’s need to break the public link, and wasn’t angry at its Syrian branch.) But even Washington could see through this flimsy disguise, and Nusra (under its new name) is still on the hit list.
Unfortunately, the “moderate” groups are not only in close alliance with Nusra, but are physically mixed in with the Islamist forces. They will get bombed too if they do not break their links with the Islamist extremists and somehow move away from them, so the ceasefire co-sponsored by the US and Russia demands that they do exactly that. Unfortunately , they can’t.
They can’t do it because on their own they could never hope to overthrow the Assad regime – and also because the Islamists will start killing them as traitors if they even try to break away. So the “moderates” haven’t really accepted the ceasefire either, and the Russians are quite right to complain that they have “not met a single obligation” of the truce.
Everything we know about the ceasefire argues that the Obama administration has accepted the regrettable necessity of leaving the Assad regime in power, although it still cannot bring itself to say so publicly.
This conclusion would probably be even clearer if we knew the full text of the Russo-American ceasefire agreement, but the US insists on keeping it secret. (The Russians, naturally, are pushing for it to be made public, but so far they have respected the deal.)
So the ceasefire, as such, is probably doomed, but the crabwise, deeply embarrassing shift of American policy towards a recognition of the strategic realities in Syria will continue. There is therefore hope that the fighting will stop one day.
A year from now, the areas controlled by the Assad regime, including at least three-quarters of the Syrian population, will probably be the same as now or maybe a little bit bigger. The surviving “moderates”, having detached themselves from al-Nusra, will hold little bits of territory and will be observing a real ceasefire.
The Kurds will still control a band of territory across the extreme north of Syria unless Turkey has waged and won a full-scale war to conquer it. And the Russians and the Americans will both be bombing the territories still controlled by Islamic State and the former Nusra Front, although in less than perfect harmony.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“The Nusra…list”; and “This conclusion…day”)