Syria solved!

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After five years of brutal civil war in Syria, an agreement has finally been reached on peace talks with the aim of establishing a nationwide ceasefire. The United Nations will oversee the rewriting of Syria’s constitution and then new elections that will presumably mark the end of the Assad family’s dictatorial rule.

There’s only one problem.

None of the parties doing the actual fighting were part of the negotiations in Vienna.

Assad wasn’t invited, and, as the New York Times reports, it is “unclear” whether either he or any of the constellation of rebel groups will agree to the deal.  The uncertainties don’t end there:

There was no target date or deadline for either the cease-fire or a new constitution and election that would follow.

Even the language used to describe what was decided after the final seven hours of heated talks between the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, along with additional European, Arab, and Gulf states, 17 countries in all, was obscure and vague. As Secretary of State John Kerry explained, the parties have agreed to “explore the modalities of a nationwide cease-fire” on the way to a new political arrangement for Syria.

So what was the point of all this? A couple of things come to mind.

First, the ceasefire plan specifically does not apply to combat against ISIS. This suggests that the US and Russia might finally end up on the same side here rather than working at cross purposes. With Obama’s announcement today that the US will deploy Special Operations forces into Kurdish-controlled territories in northern Syria, that Russia and the US might finally be fighting the same enemy is particularly welcome news.

Second, the agreement to seek a new constitution and elections for Syria signals that Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, are willing to see him go, which further suggests that they can see a way to secure their own separate interests in any post-Assad dispensation. This is important because, as I noted in a post several weeks ago, Russian military intervention to date can be seen to be creating conditions on the ground in which the US (and everyone) else would be forced to choose between a Syria under Assad and a Syria which falls to ISIS.

Third, it offers some semblance of hope that with both Iran and Saudi Arabia at the table together, the proxy war aspect of the Syrian situation may start to ratchet down in intensity.

Whether any of this bears actual fruit remains to be seen. The negotiations will reconvene in a few weeks to try to iron out details. And at some point someone will have to try and bring the forces on the ground into the discussions as well. That will be challenging enough.

Until then, this is the first sign of progress on the political front in a very long time. That’s worth something. Exactly how much it means we will have to wait to find out.

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.