Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1314, (6 - 12 October 2016)
Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Issue 1314, (6 - 12 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Slaughterhouse in Syria

Differences between the US and Russia on Syria have intensified, with Washington looking as if it might start to try to curb Moscow’s role, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Over the past two weeks, fast developments have taken place in the Syrian crisis.

Since the collapse of the ceasefire on 19 September, Russia and the US have been pointing fingers at each other, with the US upset that Russia and the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad did not uphold the agreement and Russia complaining that the US-led International Coalition bombed a base used by regime forces in Deir Al-Zor in eastern Syria.

Amid Russia’s irritation over the US “mistake” in bombing the base and Washington’s insistence on the need to deliver humanitarian aid to the city of Aleppo, Russian jets bombed a UN aid convoy heading to the city, and Russia launched unprecedented air strikes against the city.

Regime forces aided by Iranian and Lebanese militias began to prepare an advance on the city, causing some European countries to raise this escalation in the UN Security Council. Fiery statements were made by Russian and American officials, raising the alarm about further escalations to follow. 

However, many believe that the war of words between the US and Russia is mere propaganda and a cover for a tacit agreement normalising conditions in Syria. Yet, for the Russians “normalising” means stamping out the armed opposition, while for the Americans it means putting further pressure on the regime.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country would implement the US-Russian deal on Syria but only while military operations continued. Washington declared it might end cooperation with Russia and start looking into other options, warning that the Russian air strikes could cause countries supporting the Syrian opposition to send in more weapons.

State department spokesman John Kirby said Russian cities could be exposed to terrorist attacks if Russia continued the strikes and that Moscow would lose more lives and aircraft in Syria.

The possibility of ending cooperation with Russia was “not an empty threat,” he said.

Russia was quick to warn of “seismic” repercussions of any direct targeting of Al-Assad forces, though the US has not ruled out the possibility of a major US intervention in Syria or of sending advanced anti-aircraft weapons to the opposition.

Despite such threats, Moscow has reiterated its desire to return to consultations with the US and its readiness to amend the agreement.

However, a meeting between the two foreign ministers in Geneva at the beginning of this week was a failure, with the US tense about Russia’s insistence on continuing its air strikes and obstructing humanitarian aid.

The US deputy secretary of state said that the country’s National Security Agency (NSA) had started to look into other options for Syria, speaking of “alternative options” should diplomacy fail.

Russia appears to believe that US President Barack Obama will not take any steps against it, especially since he has only a few more months in office. But its failure to take the American warnings seriously triggered the US to announce on 3 October that it was freezing talks with Russia, accusing Moscow of not fulfilling its obligations under the previous agreement.

Syrian opposition figure Saeed Moqbel said Russia “can avoid the worst-case scenario of a confrontation with the US by either quickly responding to US demands or not responding and seeking closer military ties with Turkey and creating an alliance with Turkey, Iran and the Syrian regime.”

This could “hold off the US,” he said, especially since Russia now controls the ground in Syria.

But others believe Russia has become bogged down in Syria and is looking for ways to move out or forward. Russia cannot impose everything it wishes on the Syrian regime, such commentators say, especially since Tehran stands ready to incite the regime to sabotage anything not serving its interests.

There have also been divisions on military strategy between the US administration and the Pentagon, which criticised the deal Kerry signed with the Russians that created a joint operations command and the exchange of intelligence to combat terrorism.

Some reports say that this dispute caused the Pentagon to contrive the air raid on regime forces in Deir Al-Zor in order to tell the administration and the Russians that it objected to the deal being forced on it.

The US has continued to procrastinate on Syria and has gambled on containing Russia within a certain margin. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has begun moving beyond these margins, seeking to be an uncontested player in Syria.

The Europeans are seeking a ceasefire or a no-fly zone over Aleppo, which has become a “slaughterhouse” according to the UN secretary-general, and allowing the delivery of humanitarian aid to those under siege. This is not acceptable to Russia, which is using the situation in Aleppo as leverage.

“The Syrian opposition does not trust Washington, which has avoided the crisis out of a fear of becoming involved,” Moqbel said. “Because of its inconsistent positions, Russia has gained the upper hand, with all the White House being capable of being verbal threats and exaggeration.”

Others, however, believe that this time round the quarrel between the US and Russia is more serious and that it involves the US military more than it does the administration. They say the military has decided to enter into a challenge with Russia and the fact that the president will change soon does not affect this decision.

Moscow may accept this challenge and step up its air strikes if opposition missiles begin targeting its jets. This would open the gates of hell, as while Russia would be pulled further into the Syrian swamp, the biggest loser would be the Syrians.

Meanwhile, Washington’s suspension of communications with Russia while Russia continues its unlimited support for the Syrian regime threatens the region with “seismic repercussions,” as the Russians have put it.

It is unlikely that the US will intervene directly in Syria and also improbable that it will take risks such as air strikes against Syrian targets or sending US warplanes to escort aid convoys.

However, it could begin sending anti-aircraft weapons to the opposition either directly or via friendly states or mediators. This would entrench Russia further in Syria and could make it ask for US intervention or exit the Syrian scene for good.

Russia is already feeling the costs of the Syrian crisis, though it will not give up its position in Syria lightly even if it is willing to surrender Al-Assad. For Moscow, the Syrian issue gives it leverage on other issues such as Ukraine, the Balkans, the missile shield and European sanctions.

Meanwhile, diplomacy appears to be moribund, the tragedy of the Syrian people continues and the Russians continue to handle Syria as if it were Grozny in the Caucasus. The regime’s devastating strikes continue, as do attacks by the International Coalition and violations by Kurdish forces dreaming of secession.

The Syrian “slaughterhouse” thus continues with no one appearing to care enough to halt the tragedy.

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