Post-hostility Syria still seems pretty hostile to me

syrian_civil_war
The state of the Syrian civil war as of 2/15/2016 (Wikimedia | Spesh531)

Everybody’s supposed to be ceasing hostilities in Syria this week, so I guess it’s Russia’s last chance to really go after its really high-value targets: hospitals and schools. You know, those bastards:

Almost 50 civilians were killed when missiles hit at least five medical facilities and two schools in rebel-held areas of Syria on Monday, according to the United Nations, which called the attacks a blatant violation of international law.

At least 14 were killed in the northern town of Azaz, the last rebel stronghold before the border with Turkey, when missiles hit a children’s hospital and a school sheltering refugees, a medic and two residents said. Missiles also hit a hospital in the town of Marat Numan in the province of Idlib, south of Aleppo.

The Russians are denying that they had anything to do with striking those facilities, which is a little like a guy with his hand on a slots lever suddenly exclaiming that he’s stunned to find gambling going on in this casino. Seriously, though, Russia is claiming that it was targeting ISIS (it was making some odd targeting choices if that’s the case) and the Assad government is claiming that US aircraft were responsible. While I’m open to any argument that American airstrikes are causing civilian casualties (because they often do), these strikes happened in places where Russia has been far more active than the US and its coalition partners. And the target selection (yes, I’m suggesting it was deliberate) is in keeping with much of the rest of Russia’s work in Syria so far.

The truth is, that whole “cessation of hostilities” thing took a hit literally the day after it was announced, when Bashar al-Assad declared that he plans to “retake the whole country” from the forces opposing him. This is not a guy who’s planning on ceasing hostilities, and since he’s been the driving force behind most of Syria’s hostilities, he’s got a lot to say about whether and when they might cease. The assumption is that Moscow will, at some point, lean on him to put on the brakes, but there’s mounting evidence to suggest that they can’t and therefore probably won’t. The State Department called Assad “deluded” for thinking he can or will retake all of Syria, and maybe they’re right, but can you blame Assad for feeling pretty good about himself these days? He’s on quite a roll, contrary to how things looked for him before Russia intervened or even for a couple of months after. Now, a few good weeks doesn’t mean he and his backers can restore central authority throughout Syria. Even if they could and did, that only proves that Assad can conquer Syria with a lot of Russian help, not that Assad alone can hold or govern it. But still, things look better for Assad right now than they have maybe since the civil war began.

No, make no mistake, there’s still no real chance for an end to the fighting in Syria anytime soon. How could there be, when the conflict remains this complicated:

That looks less like a war than a state of anarchy, a glimpse of the “nasty, brutish, and short” Hobbesian state of nature, only everybody’s armed with 21st century weaponry. Where’s the settlement for that? You don’t need a ceasefire in Syria; you need about 20 different ceasefires, all with different permutations of participants, different terms, different goals, and so on. And it’s getting worse: Turkey is now regularly shelling Kurdish positions in northeastern Syria and is calling for anti-ISIS coalition ground forces to be deployed in Syria to stop further Kurdish advances (which makes no sense given that the US has been working with the Kurds, but I digress), and Saudi Arabia has now reportedly deployed aircraft to Turkey’s Incirlik air base, whence they might bring the Syrian people the same explosive liberation that Saudi ordinance has been bringing to the people of Yemen for the past several months. I’m sure I’ve written this before, but it is a virtual certainty that there will be no peace in Syria so long as the only people who really want it are the now-entirely powerless Syrian civilians, and there won’t be any concerted effort to defeat ISIS so long as the United States is the only party truly interested in such an effort.

Still, the demand that the United States Do Something About Syria continues unabated. Leon Wieseltier, who would start about 8 massive world wars a year if he were running the country, expressed this sentiment in a WaPo editorial with Michael Ignatieff last week:

The conventional wisdom is that nothing can be done in Syria, but the conventional wisdom is wrong. There is a path toward ending the horror in Aleppo — a perfectly realistic path that would honor our highest ideals, a way to recover our moral standing as well as our strategic position. Operating under a NATO umbrella, the United States could use its naval and air assets in the region to establish a no-fly zone from Aleppo to the Turkish border and make clear that it would prevent the continued bombardment of civilians and refugees by any party, including the Russians. It could use the no-fly zone to keep open the corridor with Turkey and use its assets to resupply the city and internally displaced people in the region with humanitarian assistance.

If the Russians and Syrians sought to prevent humanitarian protection and resupply of the city, they would face the military consequences. The U.S. military is already in hourly contact with the Russian military about de-conflicting their aircraft over Syria, and the administration can be in constant contact with the Russian leadership to ensure that a humanitarian protection mission need not escalate into a great-power confrontation. But risk is no excuse for doing nothing. The Russians and the Syrians would immediately understand the consequences of U.S. and NATO action: They would learn, in the only language they seem to understand, that they cannot win the Syrian war on their repulsive terms. The use of force to protect civilians, and to establish a new configuration of power in which the skies would no longer be owned by the Syrian tyrant and the Russian tyrant, may set the stage for a tough and serious negotiation to bring an end to the slaughter.

Yes, the no-fly zone, the bad idea that will never die. Now, I’m sympathetic to the argument that a US-imposed no-fly zone might cause Moscow to think twice about continuing its air campaign; why would Russia want to go to war over Syria? But there is no chance that Assad could be made to acquiesce to such a no-fly zone, because it would very literally mean the end of his regime and possibly his life–everybody remembers what happened to the last Arab dictator who lost control of his own airspace in the middle of a civil war, right? I guarantee you that Assad does. And if Assad would refuse to back down in the face of an American no-fly zone, there’s a pretty strong possibility that Russia would be pulled toward supporting him. There is far more to be gained from pursuing a Syrian unity government that includes Assad but creates a pathway to his eventual, peaceful, removal, at a time down the road when Moscow can be convinced that its interests are better served by jettisoning their costly client. This would require compromise on the part of the Syrian rebels, which would require that they trust that Assad will be made to stick to his obligations under a peace agreement. That’s a big risk for them to take, but we’re at the point where nothing else is working, so maybe it’s worth the risk. But that negotiated settlement route doesn’t send a thrill up Leon Wieseltier’s leg, so you won’t catch him talking about it.

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

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