Shifting the Terms of Debate in Syria.

Long ago, the now-aged Secretary of State Madeline Albright demanded to know “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”[1] Thus, there has long been a tension between American diplomats—who want to use military power to enhance their negotiating position[2]—and American soldiers—who would have to write letters to families explaining why their sons or daughters had died. So long as the Syrian civil war remained stuck in neutral, the Obama Administration could insist with a straight face that “there is no military solution.” In spite of pressure from then Secretary of Stater Hilary Clinton for a more robust arming of anti-Assad rebels, President Obama opted for a more narrow-bore effort. The US and the Sunni Gulf States pumped weapons and money to the Assad forces in the hopes that there was a military solution, if only it was a stalemate that brought the Assad regime to the bargaining table at a disadvantage. Recently, American diplomacy has been seeking a cease-fire and the creation of a “humanitarian corridor” to the Syrian opponents of Assad. Basically, that means that they wanted to limit the range of Syrian government military operations. Perhaps that would create new “red lines.” Apparently, Secretary of State John Kerry (like Albright and Clinton) has been frustrated with the lack of American military support. However, President Obama has been reluctant to embroil the US in yet another conflict.[3]

To make matters worse, Turkey is enraged by American policy. The American attack on Iraq in 1991 eventually led to the creation of a safe haven for Iraqi Kurds. This became a potential proto-state for an independent Kurdistan. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 would—in the view of informed observers at the time—cause the country to come apart like a leper in a hot tub. The Turks refused to allow American troops to launch an attack from Turkey. Still, Iraq exploded after the American invasion. More recently, the Iraqi Kurds are the only ones willing to make a serious fight against ISIS because it allows them to add to their territory. American support for the Kurds of Iraq as the chief opponents of ISIS in western Iraq and eastern Syria has further strengthened the Kurds.[4] Now the Americans are faced with the dilemma that military aid to the Iraqi Kurds will inevitably flow as well to Kurdish militants inside Turkey.

Now, Russian and Iranian military intervention on the side of the beleagured Assad regime has put “Paid” to the fantasy of “no military solution.” Russian bombing has evicted many of the anti-Assad forces from their positions.[5] This may have come as a surprise to the Obama administration. How so? The President is in the habit of trash-talking people who disagree with him. (If you look at the botched roll-out of the HealthCare.gov site as an example, he may have made it difficult for people to bring him bad news.)

In essence, the United States has lost any initiative that it once may—or may not—have possessed. The Russian strategy of defeating the non-ISIS opponents of the Assad government (including the US) seems to be working. This would create new facts on the ground. As one Syrian farmer opined, “After winning victory, [the Russians] will negotiate.” Probably, the farmer was not a consultant to the State Department.

[1] Quoted in The Economist, 11 March 2011. See: http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/03/defence_spending_and_libya

[2] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYxki0mvqmM

[3] David E. Sanger, “Russian Campaign in Syria Reduces Leverage for Accord,” NYT, 11 February 2016.

[4] See: “The Kurdish Serbia.”

[5] Just as American airstrikes destroyed the defensive power of the Ghadaffi regime in Libya.

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