Those who have closely followed President Obama’s foreign policy over the past seven and a half years know that he has always been concerned about two things. The first is how things look rather than how they are; in other words, the triumph of form over substance. The second is an almost obsessive determination to appease adversaries by offering them even more than they ask for.
One instance that brings Obama’s two concerns together is the Syrian tragedy which has already claimed some 300,000 lives and turned half the population of that nation into refugees inside and outside the country.
It is against that background that the so-called ceasefire, initiated by Russia and quickly endorsed by Washington should be examined. I suspect that Obama is intelligent enough to know that there is not going to be a ceasefire for at least two reasons. First, a ceasefire is installed only when all parties to a war agree to it which is certainly not the case in Syria today.
In Fact, the joint sponsors of the “ceasefire”, that is to say Moscow and Washington, have expressly excluded the Al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State or Daesh. Implicitly exempt are ethnic Kurds who now hold almost as much territory as President Bashar Al-Assad’s government, albeit with a smaller population.
The position of others involved in this imbroglio, notably the Lebanese and Iraqi Hezbollah units under Iranian command and the Afghan and other central Asian “volunteer” units controlled by Tehran, remains unclear. The closest hint to it has come from Muhammad-Javad Zarif, the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister, who says there will be no stop to “action against terrorist groups.” Since Tehran regards all those opposed to Assad as “terrorists”, that could mean anyone and everyone.
At the other end of the spectrum, the cluster of anti-Assad forces that are not labelled “terrorist” by Washington and Moscow have made their acceptance of an eventual ceasefire conditional to a cessation of attacks on their positions and the lifting of sieges that are starving large civilian populations.
In other words, Obama and his new-found partner, Vladimir Putin, have invented a new form of ceasefire; one could call it a la carte for good measure. The second reason why there isn’t going to be a ceasefire is the diverse nature of fires that are burning Syria. There are in fact three sorts of fire in Syria.
The first is fire from air which remains a monopoly of Assad’s air force, and recently, that of his Russian allies. People forget that more than 90 per cent of those killed in the past five years were victims of air attacks by Syrian and Russian air forces, especially barrel bombings and the use of chemical weapons. If Putin really wanted, that fire could cease immediately.
The second fire is the one exchanged in engagements on the ground between Assad’s forces and allies, including the Iranian bloc, which has claimed far fewer victims than Assad’s air attacks and Putin’s carpet bombing campaign. In fact, since the autumn of 2014 when the so-called civil war reached its peak, the two sides have fought a total of only 17 battles of significant size and scope.
Neither Assad nor his opponents have the manpower needed for large-scale ground operations in the context of positional warfare. Even if they make temporary territorial gains they do not have the human resources to hold on their conquests.
The Syrian civil war has produced a draw and a de facto partition that no one is strong enough to alter. Some analysts believe that Assad’s refusal to resist advances made by ISIS is a sign of collusion between the two criminal outfits. We don’t know whether or not that is the case. However, we know that Assad ceded chunks of territory to ISIS without much of a fight while ISIS, breathing down his neck close to Damascus, has not chosen to enter the capital. In other words a de facto ceasefire between Assad and ISIS has been in place for almost a year.
The third kind of fire that is burning Syria comes from terrorist attacks in urban areas, notably car bombs and suicide operations. The Putin-Obama deal is not going to cease that kind of fire anytime soon, especially when the groups behind them are not given any incentive to change tactics.
The Putin-Obama deal will not stop the Syrian tragedy or even alter its course for the better. But it will give Obama a narrative with which to pay until the next US presidential election in nine months’ time. He would have a “peace process” in place as he has had one between Israel and the Palestinians since 2009. He would sell his Syrian “peace process” the same way he sold his non-existent “nuclear deal” with Iran with the claim that appeasing the mullahs would help “moderates” like former President Hashemi Rafsanjani win power in Iranian elections (Held today!)
The Putin-Obama deal will also suit the master of the Kremlin. There are signs that Putin is beginning to understand that his Syrian adventure wouldn’t be a cakewalk. With the Russian economy heading for a meltdown, partly because of low energy prices, Putin is finding it harder to sell his empire-building project to the oligarchs who provide the backbone of his regime. He has also understood that, without boots on the ground in substantial numbers, he could not impose his desired order on Syria. But where would those boots come from? Having already suffered incredible losses, the mullahs of Tehran dare not send large numbers of their own troops especially when they need them to quell the insurrections they fear inside Iran itself. As for the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah, it has already seen its forces decimated and any bigger deployment to Syria could deprive Hassan Nasrallah of the critical mass he needs to terrorize his political enemies inside Lebanon.
As for Assad, he has no choice but to live on a day to day basis, indulging in all manner of illusions including the “parliamentary elections” he has just announced as his April Fools’ Day contribution.
The tragedy is that, all the while, in Syria people die, every day.