For Syria insurgents Russia is the hammer, ISIS the anvil

At The Atlantic this afternoon, the headline asks: “Just Who is Russia Targeting in Syria?”

After two days of airstrikes, I think the answer is pretty clear. Russia is clearing the field of “moderate” rebels, setting the civil war up as a showdown between the Assad regime and ISIS.

The map below, from the Institute of the Study of War, shows the locations of Russia’s first-day airstrikes, all well away from areas under ISIS control. Today’s strikes were apparently more of the same, though Russia contended that they had in fact hit ISIS targets in other parts of the country (but this was disputed by pro-Damascus media).

Institute for the Study of War
Institute for the Study of War

Assuming it works, this presents the rest of the world, and the United States in particular, with the uncomfortable choice of backing Russia’s longtime ally or seeing the country fall to the Islamic State. As the New York Times notes, this puts the US in a bind:

But the United States has long held that Mr. Assad must step down before a stable peace can be achieved. Lately, President Obama has added some nuance, saying that Mr. Assad could be part of a “managed transition” to a new government.

For their part, the Russians echo the Syrian government line that there is no distinction between the various groups at war with Assad:

In response to a question about which organizations in the region Russia considers to be fair targets, [Russian foreign minister Sergey] Lavrov was equally vague, saying: “If it looks like a terrorist, walks like a terrorist, acts like a terrorist, fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist, right?”

That answer is a little too convenient for Russian interests to be taken at face value. The insurgent groups that Putin’s warplanes have hit over the last two days include the Army of Conquest, a coalition of Islamist groups, as well as the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. Despite their ideological differences, what these groups have in common is that they are waging a two-front battle against both the regime and ISIS.

At a press conference on Wednesday, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter argued that in “seemingly taking on everybody fighting Assad,” the Russian effort is doomed to failure. But the pattern of Russian airstrikes suggests they’re specifically not taking on everybody. At least not with equal vigor.

If the other Syrian insurgent groups are smashed between a Russian hammer and the ISIS anvil, then the failure of Putin’s strategy will mean victory for ISIS. And that’s a result that everyone else with interests in the outcome of the Syrian civil war will be loathe to accept.

If the choice is between Assad and ISIS, then Obama’s “managed transition” is much more likely to turn into a full on regime restoration. Just what Putin wants.

Peace process? What peace process?

ukraine-mobilizes-after-putins-declaration-of-war

The war you’ve already forgotten about, the one in eastern Ukraine pitting the government in Kiev against separatist Russian proxies, looks poised to enter a renewed period of fighting.  This despite a shaky ceasefire and the occasional talks between Ukrainian negotiators and the Moscow-backed rebels that have been dragging on since February.

The Atlantic updates us on the current state of affairs with an article today headlined “Is this the end of Ukraine’s Peace Process?

The answer is yes, and it’s pretty easy to understand why. Any peace process rooted in an effort to achieve some kind of negotiated settlement can only work when all sides realize they can no longer achieve their goals by any other means. If any thinks it stands a better chance of getting what it wants by returning to the battlefield than staying at the negotiating table, then the process will fail.

The logic of this was spelled out more than 30 years ago in the work of Johns Hopkins political scientist I. William Zartman who has argued that peace initiatives will only bear fruit when a conflict has reached the “ripe moment,” a concept which centers on the parties’ perception of a mutually hurting stalemate. Zartman explains the concept this way:

[Mutually Hurting Stalemate] is based on the notion that when parties find themselves locked in a conflict from which they cannot escalate to victory and this deadlock is painful to both of them (although not necessarily in equal degree or for the same reasons), they seek an alternative policy or Way Out.

As The Atlantic piece compellingly argues, that is definitely not where any of the parties in the Ukrainian conflict are at present. In fact, the current stalemate is of the most benefit to Kiev, which retains legal authority over the separatist-held Donbas region but doesn’t have to shoulder responsibility for governing, financing, or rebuilding the devastated region.  The price that it is demanding to reintegrate the region is disarming of rebels, the removal of Russian troops and weapons, full control over the international border between Russia and Ukraine,  an internationally supervised regional elections.

Moscow wants the region reincorporated into Ukraine too, but with the rebel leaders legitimized as its rulers, separatist fighters fully armed and turned into its police force, and with so much autonomy so as to be a Russian protectorate in all but name. This would give Moscow a perpetual ability to undermine and destabilize Kiev at will, preventing the Ukrainian government from moving fully into the embrace of the West.

Given these conflicting goals, there is no compromise position that can satisfy both Kiev and Moscow.  And as long as the existing stalemate favors Kiev, Moscow understands that its only viable move is to break the deadlock. Exactly how that will play out remains to be seen. But you can bet it won’t be pretty.

And no one will mistake it for a peace process.