Foreign Affairs: The great Syrian game

Despite the abrupt collapse of its latest cease-fire, the Syrian war’s aftermath is beginning to take shape.

anti-government protest in Maarat al-Numan, Syria (photo credit: REUTERS)
anti-government protest in Maarat al-Numan, Syria
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian peace, diplomats in Geneva realized, will remain an oxymoron even after the cease-fire they were hammering came into effect, but one thing, they hoped, would slowly emerge: trust.
Two weeks and 80 fatalities later, trust between that deal’s parties is itself a casualty of the war that has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians and displaced millions while leveling much of their land.
Two incidents within three days encapsulated a five-year-long tragedy whose inferno, after having long spread wide and thick, now seems to be assuming a life of its own.
First, an American-led coalition bombardment mistakenly hit a military camp in northeast Syria last Saturday, killing at least 60 of Bashar Assad’s troops. Then a Red Crescent convoy carrying UN-supplied medicines and food was hit outside Aleppo, quashing 18 trucks and killing 20 aid workers.
Quashed along with those trucks was also trust between Washington and Moscow, as no one believed Russia’s denials of involvement in that attack.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stopped short of specifying his addressees when he called the attack “sickening, savage and apparently deliberate,” and its perpetrators “cowards.” American officials, however, speaking on condition of anonymity, blamed the bombings on Russian fighter jets, while in Moscow the Foreign Ministry said in an official statement that such accusations were “outrageous,” and that Russia viewed them “with resentment and indignation.”
That was on Tuesday. By Wednesday Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his American counterpart, John Kerry, were sparring in public during a Security Council meeting in which Kerry said Lavrov was “living in a parallel universe,” after the latter said Washington’s duty to rein in the rebels was more urgent than Assad’s duty to hold his fire. By Thursday Syrian jets were reportedly bombing Aleppo again.
Mistrust is now an actor in its own right in the conflict, whose plethora of local, regional, and international players makes it the most complex war the world has faced in decades.
In Damascus, where conspiracy theories are a daily staple even in peacetime, it goes without saying that the US deliberately targeted Assad’s soldiers. Absurdly, the same US that violated its vow to attack Assad’s army for using chemical weapons is anyhow being accused of attacking Assad’s troops.
The most immediate and frustrating result of recent days’ dynamics is the UN’s suspension of its aid convoys’ journeys to Syria’s battered cities. Yet those will be resumed shortly, whereas the collapsed cease-fire Kerry and Lavrov announced September 10 will now be much more difficult to restore.
The cease-fire’s main element, from the American viewpoint, was Assad’s agreement to halt combat flights above rebel-held areas. Citing the Syrian Air Force’s bombings as the main cause of the war’s bloodshed and displacement, Kerry said the deal would “put an end to the barrel bombs” and “an end to the indiscriminate bombing of civilian neighborhoods.”
Well, the quest that has proven naïve sooner rather than later now raises a simple question: Is there any respect in which the war is now closer to its end than to its beginning?
Actually there is.
THE ABRUPT collapse of the war’s second cease-fire has highlighted the deep gaps between the main belligerents’ sponsors, but it hasn’t undone their common cause.
The Russian-American agreement was that after seven warless days and after humanitarian aid’s delivery, the two superpowers would coordinate simultaneous attacks on Sunni fundamentalist organizations Islamic State and its enemy Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, until recently known as Nusra Front.
That was not a tactical concession for either party. Syria’s Islamists are a genuine target for both Moscow and Washington, and such they will remain. In the Syrian mess, it follows, seeking common interests will work better than seeking common values, a principle that Kerry has yet to accept, judging by his frustrated exhortation to Lavrov on Wednesday that “supposedly we all want the same goal” but in effect “we are proving woefully inadequate in making that happen.”
That “same goal,” from Kerry’s viewpoint, is peace, relief and healing. These are very doubtfully high priorities for Russia. Defeating Islamic State, however, is urgent for Moscow, as it also is for Tehran, and by now also for Ankara, whose enmity Islamic State has won through a series of recent terrorist attacks.
That is why, despite the cease-fire’s collapse, the war on Syria’s two main fundamentalist groups will in upcoming months gather and also climax. At the same time, while the length of the civil war is impossible to guess, the general contours of the map it will redraw are beginning to unfold.
THE CLUE to Syria’s future lies in what has been happening between Moscow and Ankara in recent weeks.
The Turkish army’s invasion last month of northern Syria is Assad’s first strategic setback since Russia’s fighter jets saved him last summer from defeat. The Russian bombardments first put the American- and Turkish-backed rebels on the defensive, and then ignited the Syrian Army’s steady return to previously lost positions.
Helped by this tailwind, and having seen that American threats to attack him never materialized, Assad has apparently become overconfident.
Emerging last week amid the ruins of Daraya, the now-deserted Damascene suburb where Paul is said to have converted to Christianity, an unconverted Assad vowed to reassemble “all areas” of the Syria he inherited from his father.
Assad, who made this statement where his troops had reportedly executed 200 men, women and children in August 2012, indeed has good reason to believe the worst is behind him.
Not only has his military situation improved, his diplomatic position seems ironclad, as his Russian and Iranian backing endured the war’s setbacks while the many powers that until recently demanded his removal – from the US to Turkey through Britain and France – are now quietly accepting his survival, grudgingly realizing he can be better for them than the fundamentalists who might succeed him.
Even so, Assad’s potential survival of the world’s revulsion over the genocide he has unleashed does not mean the Syria he led into this war will be the one he will salvage from its jaws.
Assad will never have his original Syria back, for two reasons:
First, the Sunni majority that Assad has bled white will not return to his yoke.
His assault has been so ruthless, and the wounds it has left will prove so deep, that the only way this population will return to room with his Alawite minority would be as its landlord, an arrangement that no Alawite will be prepared to accept, and which Assad is well placed to prevent.
Second, Turkey’s invasion, unlike what Assad seems to assume, is not a variation on Islamic State’s occupation, nor can it be compared with any of his other enemies’ sporadic conquests elsewhere.
Turkey’s is one of the world’s largest, best trained and most modernly equipped armies, and it now is also highly motivated, because Assad – as millions of Turks now see things – has swamped their country with three million refugees and also uncorked much of the terror they have come to face.
That is why Islamic State’s impending eviction from Assad’s realms no longer means those territories will automatically return to Assad’s rule. After having spread along Assad’s side of the Turkish border, the Turks quickly made it plain they are in no rush to leave, as they began stretching electricity lines and preparing to supply water to local towns.
This presence is defensive in its quest to stem refugee traffic and terrorist incursions, but it is also offensive in its quest to contain the emergence of a Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. This offensive posture will likely develop further, to a role in the rest of Syria’s remapping.
With Turkey’s invasion following Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dramatic visit to the Kremlin last month and Russian Chief of Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov’s meeting last week in Ankara with his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar, it appears Russia has agreed to accept Turkey’s creation of a buffer zone along Syria’s side of their 820-km. border.
Whatever the extent of Turkey’s improbable harmony with Russia, it means Assad has effectively lost his north to some sort of long-term Turkish tutelage.
While such a presence may be dismissed as confined to prewar Syria’s northern margin, Erdogan’s statement that his troops may march further south vindicates assessments that Ankara wants to eventually sponsor a Sunni state somewhere on prewar-Syria’s ruins.
Such an internationally agreed re-design of Syria is becoming urgent for Russia because its great accomplishment in Syria, the restoration of its status as a superpower and a global power broker, is threatened the more Assad fails to fully defeat his rebels, and thus creates a protracted stalemate that will expose the limits of Russia’s clout.
That is why what matters in Syria are not the cease-fires Kerry craves but the remapping it begs, and which – following Turkey’s invasion – has effectively begun.