In Multipolarity

By Laura Rozen, Al-Monitor, Aug 4, 2016

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, reviewing progress in combating the so-called Islamic State (IS) with his national security team at the Pentagon on Aug. 4, said the group will inevitably be defeated militarily and driven from its remaining strongholds of Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria. But a long-term solution to IS will require an end to the Syrian civil war, Obama said, and he rebuked Russia for backing the Syrian regime’s advances on Aleppo, suggesting ongoing U.S.-Russian negotiations on possible deeper cooperation in Syria are unlikely to reach agreement anytime soon.

Smoke from burning tires over Aleppo, Syria on Aug 1, 2016 (Abdalrhman Ismail, Reuters)

Smoke from burning tires over Aleppo, Syria on Aug 1, 2016 (Abdalrhman Ismail, Reuters)

IS forces “have not had a major successful offensive operation in either Iraq or Syria in a full year,” Obama told journalists at the Pentagon after convening a National Security Council meeting to review progress in the fight against IS on Aug. 4.

They “are inevitably going to be defeated,” Obama said. “But the situation is complex. They are not going to be defeated [by the military] alone.”

“In Syria, defeating [IS] and al-Qaeda requires the end of the civil war,” Obama said. “The regime and its allies continue to violate the cessation of hostilities, including with vicious attacks on defenseless civilians, medieval sieges on cities like Aleppo. … It is deplorable and [shows] the depravity of the Syrian regime.”

“Russia’s involvement … raises serious questions … about their preparedness to pull the situation from the brink,” Obama said.

“So far, Russia has failed to take the necessary steps,” Obama said. “It is time for Russia to show it is serious about pursuing these [objectives].”

As Russian-backed Syrian forces have made advances trying to surround and cut off rebel-held eastern Aleppo, U.S. officials have in recent days deflected questions about U.S.-Russian negotiations about possible deeper cooperation targeting IS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and trying to restore the cessation of hostilities in the country, except to say the negotiations are ongoing. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking in Laos last week, said he hoped to be able to announce the details of a U.S.-Russian understanding the first week of August.

But an agreement did not appear to be imminent midweek. “We are not there yet,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner told journalists at the State Department press briefing Aug. 4.

“We believe the discussions we have had with the Russians in Geneva have made progress,” Toner said. “The goal is how to make sense of what groups are located where in and around Aleppo and … beyond. … Only then can we put in place a cessation of hostilities that is credible, and that will allow talks to get going again in Geneva.”

“That is where we are,” Toner said. “It is not an easy place to be. It has not been made any easier by this assault on Aleppo. That does not mean we still don’t believe the effort is worthwhile. We are still talking.”

Diplomats trying to restart Syrian talks in Geneva said they considered U.S.-Russian agreement critical for the prospect of resumed Syria political talks.

“On the Russian-American military talks, they are ongoing, I can confirm; we’re hoping that the results will be fruitful within short order because I think that would unlock the entire situation,” Deputy UN Syria envoy Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy told journalists in Geneva on Aug. 4.

“We continue to believe that no one has an interest in further escalating the military situation in Aleppo in a way that would impede humanitarian aid and the chances of political settlement,” Ramzy said. “We need to do something about Aleppo, very quickly. I think that there is still a chance for that in the next days.”

Russia will try to find a way to make political talks and U.S.-Russia understanding acceptable when it is ready, said Michael Kofman, a Russia military expert at the Kennan Institute.

Assuming a rebel counterattack in Aleppo does not succeed, “Aleppo probably has three weeks before it is a real humanitarian disaster and every newspaper has the same headline,” Kofman told Al-Monitor on Aug. 4.

“As far as political talks go — you have to count on the Russians to find their own way out of this victory, and they will, because they tend to be better at this than we are,” Kofman said.

“Our job is to stick around, with the understanding that they will wish to institutionalize as much as possible while this administration is still in office. John Kerry’s challenge will be more to manage the refuseniks on this side of the Atlantic” — mainly at the Defense Department, he said.

Asked at the conclusion of his Pentagon news conference why he thinks the United States should work more with Russia on Syria when many at the Pentagon think Moscow cannot be trusted, Obama said he understands the doubts, but he wanted to test it.

“I am not confident we can trust the Russians and Vladimir Putin,” Obama said. “Russia may not be able to get there. … That is what we want to test.”

“If we are able to get a genuine cessation of hostilities that prevents indiscriminate bombing, that protects civilians … and creates some pathway to begin the hard work of political negotiations inside of Syria, then we have to try.

“And the options are limited when you have a civil war like this,” Obama said. “When you have a ruler that doesn’t care about his people, when you’ve got terrorist organizations that are brutal and would impose their own kind of dictatorship.”

Obama said, “There are going to be some bottom lines that we expect for cooperation with Russia. That means restraint on the part of the regime that so far has not been forthcoming.

“So we are going to test and see if we can get something that sticks, and if not, then Russia will have shown itself very clearly to be an irresponsible actor on the world stage that is supporting a murderous regime and will have to answer to that on the international stage,” Obama said.

Laura Rozen is Al-Monitor’s diplomatic correspondent based in Washington, DC. She has written for Yahoo! News, Politico and Foreign Policy. On Twitter: @LRozen

Related reading:

Military success in Syria gives Putin upper hand in U.S. proxy war, by Mark Mazzetti, Anne Barnard and Eric Schmitt, New York Times, Aug 6, 2016

Battle of Aleppo: Jihadi fighters suffer heavy losses, by Alexander Mercouris, The Duran, Aug 4, 2016

Here’s why there are no “moderate rebels” in Aleppo or anywhere else in Syria, by Alexander Mercouris, The Duran, Aug 6, 2016


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