Does the “cessation of hostilities” in Syria provide Russia a win-win?

The U.S. and Russia have agreed to a “cessation of hostilities” Syria. The cessation won’t begin for about a week, but there supposedly will be immediate humanitarian access to desperately besieged areas of Syria.

Before discussing this agreement, it’s worth looking at the current humanitarian, military, and political disaster in Syria, and to ask how it came about.

The disaster currently is most clearly manifested in Aleppo, an ancient city with a population of around 2 million. It has been a stronghold of anti-Assad regime rebels. Now, it is under siege by Russia, Iran, and the Assad government. You can get a sense of the resulting disaster in this article, From stalemate to slaughter” by CNN.

Russia is the main culprit in Aleppo’s tragic descent from stalemate to slaughter. According to the Washington Post, it has engaged in indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, using banned cluster munitions. The bombing campaign defies a U.N. Security Council resolution that Russia voted for.

The situation in Aleppo is just the tip of the humanitarian disaster iceberg, though. It is estimated that the civil war in Syria has produced at least 300,000 deaths. It has also generated a refugee crisis that is roiling much of Europe.

So tragic is the humanitarian disaster that it almost seems heartless to discuss who is winning. Yet, it matters a good deal that the winners in the Syrian civil war include Russia, Iran, and ISIS. Russia because it is gaining massive influence in the region; Iran because it is gaining a puppet in the form of the Assad regime; ISIS because while Assad and his foreign allies concentrate on pounding rebels in the west, it controls large swaths of territory and key cities and towns in the east.

The big losers are the non-jihadist Syrian opposition (not coincidentally, the forces we have halfheartedly backed); the U.S., unless one assumes (as President Obama seems to) that Russia and Iran are not our enemies; and most of all, the people of Syria.

How did this disastrous situation come about? It came about to a significant extent because of decisions made by President Obama.

Michael Ignatieff and Leon Wieseltier identify the main two. First, instead of getting strongly behind the non-jihadist rebels, Obama contented himself with empty declarations that Assad must go and halfhearted, at best, arms shipments.

Second, he allowed his alleged “red line” on Assad’s use of chemical weapons to be crossed. This made it clear that the U.S. wasn’t willing to take on the regime in even a limited way. The clear signal to Assad and his backers was that anything goes.

Even before Assad crossed the red line, Obama should have instituted a no-fly zone in Syria. It would have prevented Assad’s air force from engaging in the bombing that has killed tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. It likely would have prevented Assad and Iran from gaining the upper hand. It would have prevented Russia from later unleashing its air power, the move that seems to have been decisive in Syria’s descent from stalemate to slaughter.

Once Assad crossed the red line, any good excuse for not instituting a no-fly zone evaporated.

But this was not the end of Obama’s fecklessness. When Aleppo came under sustained attack, the U.S. could have instituted a no-fly zone for the area from that city to the Turkish border. As Ignatieff and Wieseltier argue, this would have prevented the bombardment of civilians and refugees and kept open the corridor to Turkey, thus enabling the transport of aid and supplies to people trapped in the area.

Would Russia have challenged such a no-fly zone? It’s very unlikely. Putin is too smart to risk taking on the U.S. military in the name of slaughtering Syrians. But if he had, we could have taught him an important lesson.

Instead, Obama opted for the “peace talks” that led to the temporary “cessation of hostilities.” What should we make of his arrangement?

First, as noted, Russia did not agree to an immediate cessation. Tellingly, it wanted the cease fire to begin on March 1. Under the compromise reached, it goes into effect in about a week.

Thus, Russia is free to keep pounding Aleppo, thereby creating even more “favorable” facts on the ground. These facts will strengthen its already powerful position if negotiations proceed (about which, more below).

Second, it’s not clear whether there will be a meaningful cessation of hostilities at any time. Even John Kerry admitted that “all we have is words on paper.”

And even assuming that there is a cessation, hostilities can be renewed at any time. Apparently, some rebel forces, perhaps sensing a full sell-out by the U.S., have not agreed to stop fighting. (In taking this position, they reportedly have been encouraged by Assad’s enemies in the region — Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia).

Thus, the Russians will have a ready excuse to start bombing again whenever they feel it serves their interests. Not the Russians will feel they need an excuse.

Third, as Max Fisher says, even if the Russians cease hostilities, there is no guarantee that Assad’s forces will comply. And even if both Assad and Russia comply, their control over pro-Assad Shia militias is not complete.

Even so, the possibility that significant humanitarian aid will reach Aleppo, even if only in the short-term is welcome news. The Syrians in this area desperately need a reprieve.

Why have the Russians agreed to provide one. I speculate that they view the cessation of hostilities as a win-win.

Russia, Assad, and Iran win if the Obama administration, using the cessation of fighting as cover, makes one of its characteristic deals. Russia has reason to hope that, given its clear upper-hand and the pressure on Obama to make better progress in the fight against ISIS in Syria, the U.S. will capitulate insofar as the fight against Assad is concerned. More importantly, given how little the U.S. has done in this fight), Russia probably hopes the U.S. will pressure some of the opposition groups to give up the fight.

Alternatively, Russia, Assad, and Iran win (or at least don’t lose) if, after a brief cessation of hostilities, they resume the slaughter. In this scenario, Russia can tell the world it tried in good faith to end the war, but failed because the rebels were intractable.

The Obama administration is always looking for an “off-ramp.” When the red line on Assad’s use of chemical weapons was breached, the Russians offered one, and Obama snatched it. In so doing, he sold out the Syrian rebels and, indeed, the Syrian people.

My sense is that Russia is constructing an off-ramp for Obama in the expectation of a repeat performance. Obama, I suspect, is eager to oblige.

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