Amid the human suffering, you have to respect the irony inherent in the fact that this is as bleak a point as we’ve seen in Syria’s five and a half year-long civil war, and we’ve come to it as a direct result of a grand ceasefire announced by the US and Russia just a little over two weeks ago. Heck, I’ll go one better: I’m pretty sure this is as bad as US-Russia relations have been since Crimea, if not since the end of the Cold War. I wish I were exaggerating, but:
The United States also shelved plans with Russia for the joint military targeting of jihadists in Syria, the State Department said in a statement.
That’s not the punchline. This is the punchline:
Starting in the last years of the Cold War, Russia and the United States signed a series of accords to reduce the size of their nuclear arsenals, agreements that have so far survived intact despite a souring of U.S.-Russian relations under Putin.
But on Monday, Putin issued a decree suspending an agreement, concluded in 2000, which bound the two sides to dispose of surplus plutonium originally intended for use in nuclear weapons.
The Kremlin said it was taking that action in response to unfriendly acts by Washington. It made the announcement shortly before Washington said it was suspending talks with Russia on trying to end the violence in Syria.
Tensions over Syria (and no doubt Ukraine as well, among other things) are now bleeding into aspects of the US-Russia relationship designed to minimize the chance of the human race destroying itself. Whatever else you could say about that relationship to this point, at least you could say that the two countries were still more or less cooperative on nuclear disarmament issues. Apparently not anymore.
France is working on a resolution in the UN Security Council that strenuously insists that Bashar al-Assad take steps to allow humanitarian aid to reach the places where it’s needed, but this being the Security Council: 1) strenuously insisting is pretty much all it can do, and 2) Russia will veto the resolution anyway. In fact, it’s likely that the resolution is meant to force Russia to veto and thereby embarrass itself (literally vetoing humanitarian aid is not a good look), which is a sure fire way to ease tensions and get everybody talking again.
With conditions in Syria deteriorating by the second, there’s suddenly a lot of talk about a direct US military intervention filling the wonkosphere. There’s the usual menu of safe zones, no-fly zones, grounding Assad’s air power, and more weapons for the rebels, all of which seem to take it for granted that Assad and/or Russia won’t also escalate their activities in response to whatever the US does. Brookings’ Charles Lister has written up a plan that involves heavily arming/aiding the rebels in order to reverse Assad’s gains and establish some governing capacity within the moderate rebel ranks, then imposing a ceasefire backed by the threat of force. And it sounds nifty, as long as every actor involved in the conflict, apart from the US and its allies, behaves passively for the duration of the whole operation. Lister argues, for example, that Russia is unlikely to provoke World War III over Assad’s future, and fair enough, but isn’t the US equally unlikely to provoke World War III over the same thing? One assumes so, anyway, which means this plan would pit Russia against the US in a game of chicken, where there’s a strong possibility that either the US blinks first, defeating the purpose, or nobody blinks and we just sort of inexorably march toward the worst case scenario. Nobody wants to start World War III over Syria? Great! Back in 1914 nobody wanted to start World War I over Serbia, but you can’t always get what you want.
Lister also seems to think that a broad spectrum of aid to vetted rebels–military aid, but also humanitarian aid and help in building some governing capacity–would eventually wean them off of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and, I guess, other extremists as well, but this seems like a pretty dangerous assumption. The second-worst case scenario in Syria has always been that a group that, I don’t know, beheads children (hypothetically of course) would come to power in Syria in the name of some Wahhabi-influenced brand of extreme Sunnism, with pogroms against Alawites, Shiʿa, Christians, Druze, Jews, Kurds, and so on coming with them. We’re at a point in the conflict where there’s no discernible separation between so-called “moderate” rebels and extremists, and if you think you can create that separation by aiding the moderates, assuming you can figure out who the moderates are anymore…well, good luck with that.
Syria has always been a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation for the United States. The breakdown of any remaining contact with Russia demonstrates that the Obama administration’s Solomonic solution–to do, but not that much–has failed in pretty much every way it could have failed. Well, it’s failed in every way except insofar as we’ve managed to avoid that worst case scenario and that second-worst case scenario. Is it worth risking one or both of those scenarios for a chance to stymie Assad? I don’t have an answer anymore. A month ago I would’ve said “no,” albeit not without some hemming and hawing, but the scale of the violence has grown so severely in the past couple of weeks that I’ve lost my sense of certainty.