Syrian Peace Plan: US Seethes at Its Humiliation by Russia
John Kerry - taking the heat for his boss
29 February, 2016
A very well sourced article, which has recently appeared in The Wall Street Journal (attached below), shows the extent of the policy disarray in Washington following the US-Russian “cessation of hostilities” agreement.
It seems there has been a massive row.
The heads of the US military and the CIA are clearly furious at the way in which they feel the US has been humiliated, and in a series of angry meetings in the White House they have made their feelings known.
Though they rationalise their anger with talk about how Russia cannot be trusted, and how US allies in the regions like the Turks and the Saudis feel betrayed, that is what it amounts to.
These recriminations have slipped into the open, as shown by the recent angry comments of Mark Toner, the US State Department’s deputy spokesman, who in exceptionally crude and undiplomatic language called on Russia in Syria “to put up or shut up”.
These comments have provoked a stern rebuke from Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s formidable spokeswoman, whilst Alexey Pushkov, the Chairman of the State Duma’s committee for foreign affairs, has twisted the knife by Tweeting that
"A deputy spokesman of the U.S. Department of State has broken down - frayed nerves. In the United States lots of people regard the ceasefire in Syria as a defeat: the papers are indignant and the neoconservatives are shocked.”
The difficulty the US hardliners face is that for all the brave talk of a Plan B they have no realistic alternative to offer.
The Wall Street Journal reports US officials saying that “neither (US Defence Secretary Ash) Carter nor Gen. Dunford had formally submitted recommendations to Mr. Obama” and the suggestions mentioned the article - stepping up arms supplies to the rebels, providing them with battlefield intelligence, or imposing further economic sanctions on Russia - hardly amount to practical recommendations Obama can use.
With much of Europe seething against the sanctions already in place, any idea of cranking the sanctions up further on the issue of Syria (of all things) is - as the article says US officials privately admit - a complete non-starter.
As for arms supplies to the rebels, Russian aircraft in Syria fly too high to be reached by the sort of man portable surface to air missiles (“MANPADS”) the article refers to, whilst the supply of heavier medium or long range surface to air missiles to the rebels that might actually cause problems for Russian aircraft, would be a massively controversial escalation and - for public opinion in the US and Europe - almost certainly an escalation too far.
This is quite apart from the fact that supply of weapons like MANPADS or Javelin anti-tank missiles to the rebels would guarantee they fell into the hands of jihadi terrorists and the Islamic State - something the Western public would never agree to if it found out about it - without - as the article again says US officials admit - necessarily altering the military situation in the rebels’ favour.
As for the suggestion the US provide the rebels with intelligence information, that would almost certainly lead to the Russians withdrawing from their information sharing agreement with the US military, since the Russians would not want to risk information they provided to the US military being shared by the US with the rebels.
Since the US relies on this agreement to co-ordinate its operations in Syria with the Russians, unless the US were prepared to risk a clash with the increasingly strong Russian force in Syria - risking World War III - it would have to cease its operations in Syria in order to avoid a clash with the Russians.
Since that is hardly what the US wants, the option of intelligence sharing with the rebels in any meaningful way is also simply a non-starter.
As the US hardliners undoubtedly know, the only thing that would be certain to change the situation in Syria in the rebels’ favour would be direct NATO military intervention on their behalf, which in order to be effective would have to involve the US itself.
Since that would again risk provoking World War III over an issue where most of the Western public supports Russia, that too is a non-starter.
The one suggestion that has been floated as a possible Plan B - the partition of Syria on sectarian lines - which we will doubtless be hearing much about in the coming weeks - is in reality also completely impractical.
Not only do opinion polls show the overwhelming majority of Syrians - including Sunni Syrians - oppose it, but in the event the Syrian government succeeds in consolidating its control of the populated western coastal region of Syria - where all Syria’s big cities are located - the only territory left in Syria for a Sunni state would be the desert.
Whilst territorially speaking this is a very large area, it is one which is also sparsely populated, is not self-sustaining and which has no access to the sea. A sectarian Sunni state established on this territory would be militarily undefendable and economically completely unviable.
The Syrian government would be determined to regain control of this territory once it had fully re-established and consolidated itself - and it would have international law on its side.With far greater resources at its disposal, and with the backing of Iran and Russia, the Syrian government would have no difficulty reconquering this territory unless the US and NATO were prepared to send ground troops into this territory to defend it.
The idea of planting a permanent US or NATO garrison in western Syria to defend what would be an economically unviable militant jihadi micro pseudo state - in effect the Islamic State under a new name - is a fantasy - as is any idea the US and the West would be prepared to invest the huge sums needed to sustain it.
The US and European public would never agree to such a thing, especially as it would be strongly opposed by Arab opinion, which would be horrified at the sight of the great Western powers once again carving up Arab lands as they did during the colonial era and when Israel was created.
The fact the key regional powers Iran and Iraq would also vigorously oppose such a partition plan, as would the big non-Western powers like China, India and Russia, and that such a plan would almost certainly fail to attract the support of the wider international community or of the United Nations, all but settles the issue.
Though this plan will no doubt find its supporters in the Western media, in reality it does not belong within the world of practical politics.
The reality is the US has no real option but to work with the Russians in Syria, and this in fact is what very grudgingly - and for all the fire and thunder coming from the hardliners - it is doing.
There are however two further points to make about The Wall Street Journal article.
The first is a minor one, which with the US Presidential election pending is now of mainly historical interest.
It is that Obama has gone to ground.
Though the article does not say so, it is clear from its contents that he was not physically present at the meetings in the White House where the hardliners made known their views.
Instead of explaining - and defending - his policy in person to the hardliners, Obama has chosen to hide behind others - in this case his Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been left to take the heat for his boss.
Where Harry Truman famously said the buck stopped with him, Obama makes sure it stops with someone else.
The second point is more important, and it is about the future
It is that the anger the hardliners feel does not promise well, and is absolutely not a cause for rejoicing, and certainly not for gloating. On the contrary, it is a cause for foreboding and for worry about the future.
Far from accepting their defeat, on past experience the hardliners will now be looking for ways to get even with Russia.
The fact they cannot do it in Syria will not hold them back, any more than failure in Vietnam in the 1970s held an earlier generation of US hardliners back.
What happened then was that the hardliners “avenged” the US's defeat in Vietnam by setting Afghanistan on fire - with catastrophic consequences for the whole world including the US.
The fact Afghanistan turned out a disaster will however hardly deter the hardliners of today from acting in the same way. If there is one constant in US foreign policy it is that when it comes to disasters it is the wrong lessons that always get learnt.
Far from being a factor in improving relations between the US and Russia, the fact the US feels humiliated in Syria is going to make relations between the two countries even worse than they already are, and is storing up more problems for the future.
This article was first published by The Wall Street Journal