Day: August 22, 2016

Shifting currents in Syria

As UN envoy Stefano de Mistura tries to reconvene Syria peace talks next week, there are important developments that could impact his prospects.

The Syrian government has continued to block aid to opposition-controlled areas, causing Stefano to abruptly curtail humanitarian task force deliberations last week. Moscow last week flew bombers from Iran, an innovation now reportedly suspended. The Russians also launched cruise missiles allegedly targeted against Jabhat al Nusra (which is generally embedded with more moderate insurgents) from the Black Sea. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Russia has now killed more civilians in Syria than ISIS, though it started years earlier. Moscow has shown no visible inclination to limit Syrian government strikes on civilian areas, which it targets on a daily basis.

At the same time, the situation in northern Syria has evolved in a direction favorable to the US. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are mostly Kurdish fighters, have retaken Manbij from the Islamic State and are heading for Jarablus on the border where the Euphrates crosses from Turkey into Syria. Arab SDF forces are said to be preparing the assault from inside Turkey, which wants to block the Kurds from taking over the entire northern border of Syria. At the same time, farther east in Hasakeh, US-supported Kurdish forces are fighting with the Syrian army, with which they cooperated in taking the town a year ago and had maintained a truce since. The Syrian air force last week came close to clashing with US aircraft sent to protect the Kurds, who are reportedly trying to oust President Assad’s forces entirely from their northeastern “canton.”

If successful, these operations in northern Syria will cut off the Islamic State from its supply lines in Turkey and possibly end the ambiguous relationship of the Kurdish PYD forces with the Syrian government, though the Syrian opposition is unlikely to accept the PYD into its fold, not least because of Turkey’s opposition. The possibility of an attack on the Islamic State capital at Raqqa is starting to loom on the horizon, perhaps even before an effort to liberate Mosul in Iraq.

Still John Kerry is saddled as the Obama Administration draws to a close with the unenviable task of conducting Middle East diplomacy without any serious threat of coercion. The President, supported by most Americans, simply doesn’t want to use American force against anything but the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. This means not targeting the Syrian government  and Hizbollah forces, even when they attack civilians. The Iranians and Russians in Syria are following his lead in a way: they are using force on the issues they care about and ignoring diplomacy. No matter what they say about not being wedded to Assad, the Russians and Iranians are mostly fighting the Syrian opposition in an effort to prevent regime change, with few relatively few attacks on on the Islamic State.

This free for all isn’t likely to work well for John Kerry in his efforts to bring about a ceasefire in Syria. The proposition he has been flogging is this: US cooperation with Russia in targeting the Islamic State and Al Qaeda (presumably including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the allegedly unaffiliated successor to Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra) provided Russia ends attacks on the non-extremist Syrian opposition and convinces President Assad to ground his air force. The relative success of US-allied forces in northern Syria may strengthen Kerry’s hand, but there is no sign yet of any willingness on Russia’s part to meet its side of the bargain.


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