Foreign Affairs: The end of the beginning

After it collapses, the cease-fire in Syria will be recalled as an emblem of Barack Obama’s fumbling of the Middle East.

Residents of Nawa city in Syria inspect the damage after a reported strike against ISIS positions by the Russian Air Force, November 21 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Residents of Nawa city in Syria inspect the damage after a reported strike against ISIS positions by the Russian Air Force, November 21
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Peace, according to The Devil’s Dictionary, is a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.
While otherwise debatable, this definition (made by American journalist Ambrose Bierce in 1906) is certainly true of Middle Eastern cease-fires, particularly the one scheduled to take effect Friday in Syria, the first such development in its five-year-old civil war.
The cracks, ambiguities and winks in the deal agreed in a phone call Monday between presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin are glaring.
Besides agreeing to continue bombing the Islamic State and the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front, the two presidents do not fully represent the rest of this arena’s multiple belligerents, most notably the Syrian Kurds.
Then there is the blurry formula whereby President Bashar Assad will decide with Putin in which regions the cease-fire applies. Then there is Assad’s demand that all smuggling of weapons be halted – a nonstarter from his enemies’ viewpoint, and a built-in excuse for ending the cease-fire from his viewpoint. And finally there is the disjointed opposition, whose patchwork of warlords, militias and political parties includes groups with ties to al-Nusra Front.
That is why there is universal expectation for violence to continue in earnest, despite the two superpowers’ hope to see it come to its end.
At best, this cease-fire will produce a lull that, rather than end the war, will mark the end of its beginning.
Having said this, and no matter how quickly it unravels, the truce is a telling milestone in terms of the belligerents’ situations, and even more so in terms of Obama’s Middle Eastern imprint, which this episode may ultimately symbolize.
THE CEASE-FIRE’s first meaning is that five years on, with nearly half-a-million fatalities and more than 10 million Syrians displaced – the warring parties indeed need a rest, and one side, Assad’s, would also like to see it now come to its end.
Assad would have liked to somehow bottle the genie he released back when he unleashed his military on his people. From his viewpoint, the recovery of his political stock in the wake of Russia’s five-month-old military intervention means that now is the time to sell. If he waits too long, the rebels might learn to endure the Russian bombings and thus undo the momentum Assad has enjoyed as a result of this strategic surprise.
Even with his renewed confidence, no one expects Assad to restore his grip far beyond the Damascus-Latakia-Aleppo front. Even within this area, he will have to rule with the same brutality that has earned his regime notoriety, because his own Alawite tribe does not dominate Damascus, nor was it the majority in prewar Aleppo.
As for postwar Aleppo, the current dynamics might reconfigure its demographics, but even if it ends up dominated by Assad loyalists, eastern Syria will remain dominated by Syrians for whom Assad is now what Pol Pot was for most Cambodians.
From Assad’s viewpoint, the postwar arrangement’s price has already been paid, in the form of a sellout to Russia as he consciously turned his country from Moscow’s proxy to its protectorate, and himself from Putin’s ally to his puppet. Assad also seems resigned to his loss of the Kurdish north, which he is now pitting against the Turkish enemy they share.
Putin’s rationale is similar to Assad’s.
The same Russian stock that, back when the war broke out, was plunging is now soaring. Back in 2011, faced with anti-Assad demonstrations across Syria, NATO bombings in Libya, and finally Muammar Gaddafi’s lynching, many thought Russia was losing its regional grip.
Five years on, Russia is king of the Middle East.
It has retained its Syrian outpost and in fact expanded it, adding a large air base outside Latakia to its naval outpost in Tartus, and while at it has resumed its arms sales to Egypt after a 40-year hiatus. Having seen the US abandon Mubarak and lose Egypt’s trust, Putin showed the whole world that he does not abandon allies, no matter who they are or what they do.
That is why Russia would very much like to see the war in Syria end soon. The more it lags, the more Putin might be compelled to display the limits of his loyalty, which already are manifest in his intervention’s failure to include activation of ground forces.
Putin has more than recovered his strategic losses of five years ago, but from here on he can only lose. Several Russians have already been killed in Syria, and he recalls all too vividly the Kremlin’s Afghan trauma.
The same calculation is being done in Iran.
Tehran’s confrontation of the Sunni world can only reach that far and cost that much. Its defense of the anti-Sunni Assad has been effective, but its cost has been exorbitant, including unpaid oil shipments and unreturned loans to the Bank of Syria when its foreign currency reserves dwindled to the brink of extinction.
As it emerges from debilitating sanctions and sets out to restore its economy despite recordlow oil prices, Tehran will find its Syrian game increasingly unaffordable, much the way the USSR’s liquidators found the war in Afghanistan when they ended it.
That is why the mullahs went along with the Russian decision this week, delivering also their Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, which is eager to stop its hemorrhaging in Syria.
This, then, is where the cease-fire finds Assad’s side of the civil war. The other side is a lot more complex.
THE MOST unpredictable and potent player right now in the Syrian war is Turkey.
Ankara has been seriously provoked by Russia’s intervention. The emergence of a de facto Russian colony to its south is for Turkey intolerable.
It has good reason to see in it a prelude to a Russian effort to evict Turkey from nearby Cyprus, and to help weld the restive Kurds on its side of the Syrian border with their triumphant cousins on the border’s Syrian side.
That is why President Recep Erdogan, while tersely welcoming the cease-fire, added in the same breath that just as it does not include Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, it should also not include the Kurdish militias.
In other words, the Turkish military will continue its own intervention in Syria, which was triggered by Russia’s, and has so far comprised artillery salvos from Turkey into Syria. Prospects that this will evolve into a ground invasion have not been reduced by the truce Putin and Obama crafted, since, for Erdogan, Putin is now the enemy, and Obama is the traitor who abandoned him to Putin’s devices.
The other external player this side of the war, Saudi Arabia, also sees the current state of the war as unacceptable, not because of Russia but because of Iran. With enmity between Tehran and Riyadh now open and intense, the latter is not prepared to accept Tehran’s entrenchment that deep in the Arab world.
Finally, there are the rebels.
Lumped together for the sake of the cease-fire talks under an umbrella called the High Negotiating Council, its dozens of groups and splinters cannot afford a settlement that leaves Assad’s operation intact. They assume that they all stand to be massacred unless Syria is somehow redone, and no promise of immunity will convince them otherwise.
And that is where Washington comes in, tragically, as this drama’s political eunuch.
EXPLAINING HIS EFFORT to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged Tuesday that Syria may be headed toward partition.
That is of course true, and in the eyes of most experts already inescapable. The problem is that such a statement posits the US as an interpreter of events rather than their shaper, which is the exact opposite of what Russia became in the Middle East on Obama’s watch.
Obama’s fumbling of the Middle East laces his entire presidency.
It began bravely in spring 2009 with the Cairo speech named “A New Beginning,” where Obama preached to the Arab world but presented no plan of action. It continued in 2011 with the abandonment of Mubarak and the impulsive backing of his Islamist enemies. It then culminated, in summer 2013, with the failure to deliver on the vow to attack Assad’s military for using chemical weapons. The following year Obama antagonized Egypt’s new rulers, only to see them sign a multibillion-dollar arms deal with Russia.
And last year Obama watched helplessly as a Russian colony sprouted in Syria and soon joined the bombing of its cities.
It all adds up to a major geopolitical setback, underscored by an Arab exodus that is destabilizing the European Union, while the entire international order that Obama inherited from his predecessors steadily frays.
The cease-fire in Syria, a futile attempt to chase events rather than shape them, will sooner or later emerge as this grim record’s emblem.