Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Syria cease-fire never had a chance - Dr. Reuven Berko

by Dr. Reuven Berko

After it turned out that Assad was still using chemical weapons against his own citizens, the secretary of state should have realized that his own ethical mentality is more appropriate to Hollywood than to the Middle East.

As was to be expected, the Syrian cease-fire agreement signed between Russia and the Americans wasn't worth the paper it was written on. The escalation could be attributed to the fact that the Americans continued, as per the agreement, to bomb Islamic State group and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham targets, as terrorist organizations that were not signatories to the cease-fire, thus "violating Syrian sovereignty," as the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad claims. 

On the other hand, the Russians and Syrians also continued bombing opposition strongholds, including population centers, despite the agreement, claiming that the rebels were preparing to attack and that the Americans had failed to distinguish between moderate opposition players and Islamist terrorist groups. Not only that -- taking advantage of the cease-fire to improve their positions, the Syrians (and their patrons) attacked a humanitarian aid convoy and kept it from reaching besieged areas, in violation of the agreements. 

So in the end, in a conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wound up criticizing the delay in the aid to the besieged areas, the delivery of which would have been a condition -- had the cease-fire lasted a week -- for the Russians and the Americans to launch a joint series of attacks against Islamic State. The Russians claimed that the Americans were helping Islamic State. As a player of growing influence, the Russians want to hide their contempt for the American superpower that is present but absent. To Kerry's credit, it appears that he truly believes in people and in agreements. This is how he has conducted his naive, worrying negotiations with the Iranians and the Palestinians, for example. After it turned out that Assad was still using chemical weapons against his own citizens, the secretary of state should have realized that his own ethical mentality is more appropriate to Hollywood than to the Middle East. 

If we were to joke about it, we might say it's a good thing the Americans made a "mistake" and bombed the Syrian army, or that Kerry's naivete about this most recent agreement might have reached new heights. Luckily, the Russian-Syrian violations were followed by the coalition forces' "random and unfortunate" bombing of a Syrian army base in Dir a-Zur, in which dozens of Syrian soldiers were killed. There is an Arab proverb that says: "Chance is better than a thousand appointments made in advance." The message of the "mistake" was better than a thousand limp condemnations from Kerry over the course of the escalation, and it appeared that the Americans had undergone a backbone transplant. Fact: As a result of the "mistake," the Russians demanded a discussion of the matter in the U.N. Security Council and starting giving the Americans some credit. 

The Americans are busy with the presidential elections and are therefore sitting out the volatile situation in the Middle East. Even they can see the direction things are taking in Iran, Syria and Russia, but the Arab-Islamic-Sunni alternative is a weak one, too divided and steeped in terrorism to make it a strategic option. Unlike the Americans, who are lost in their attempts to put together an orderly plan based on a diplomatic vision, the opposing players -- through trial and error -- are improving their positions during the current window of opportunity, understanding that this coming January a new American administration will be in place.

In the meantime, the Iranians and the Russians are on a honeymoon of shared temporary interests -- namely, influence in the region in which the Sykes-Picot countries are falling apart. Jordan and the Gulf states are in their sights, and Egypt has opted to support Assad over the Islamists. At some point, Israel will need to decide which fatal disease better fits our view of regional security and deterrence: the Iranian, Syrian, Russian and Hezbollah axis of evil or the semi-national Islamist terrorist organizations.

Dr. Reuven Berko


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