By Alexander Mercouris, Russia Insider, Feb 29, 2016
A very well sourced article, which has recently appeared in The Wall Street Journal (enclosed below), shows the extent of the policy disarray in Washington following the U.S.-Russian “cessation of hostilities” agreement for Syria.
It seems there has been a massive row. The heads of the U.S. military and the CIA are clearly furious at the way in which they feel the U.S. has been humiliated. In a series of angry meetings in the White House, they have made their feelings known. Though they rationalise their anger with talk about how Russia cannot be trusted and how U.S. allies in the regions like the Turks and the Saudis feel betrayed, that is what it amounts to.
These recriminations have slipped into the open, as shown by the recent angry comments of Mark Toner, the U.S. State Department’s deputy spokesman, who in exceptionally crude and undiplomatic language called on Russia in Syria “to put up or shut up”.
These comments have provoked a stern rebuke from Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s formidable spokeswoman, whilst Alexey Pushkov, the Chairman of the State Duma’s committee for foreign affairs, has twisted the knife by tweeting, “A deputy spokesman of the U.S. Department of State has broken down – frayed nerves. In the United States lots of people regard the ceasefire in Syria as a defeat: the papers are indignant and the neoconservatives are shocked.”
The difficulty the U.S. hardliners face is that for all the brave talk of a Plan B they have no realistic alternative to offer.
The Wall Street Journal reports U.S. officials saying that “neither (U.S. Defence Secretary Ash) Carter nor General Dunford had formally submitted recommendations to Mr. Obama” and the suggestions mentioned in the article – stepping up arms supplies to the Syrian rebels, providing them with battlefield intelligence, or imposing further economic sanctions on Russia – hardly amount to practical recommendations Obama can use.
With much of Europe seething against the Russia sanctions already in place, any idea of cranking the sanctions up further on the issue of Syria (of all things) is – as the article says U.S. officials privately admit – a complete non-starter.
As for arms supplies to the rebels, Russian aircraft in Syria fly too high to be reached by the sort of man portable surface to air missiles (“MANPADS”) the article refers to, whilst the supply of heavier medium or long range surface to air missiles to the rebels that might actually cause problems for Russian aircraft would be a massively controversial escalation and – for public opinion in the U.S. and Europe – almost certainly an escalation too far.
This is quite apart from the fact that supply of weapons like MANPADS or Javelin anti-tank missiles to the rebels would guarantee they fell into the hands of jihadi terrorists and the Islamic State – something the Western public would never agree to if it found out about it – without – as the article again says U.S. officials admit – necessarily altering the military situation in the rebels’ favour.
As for the suggestion the U.S. provide the rebels with intelligence information, that would almost certainly lead to the Russians withdrawing from their information-sharing agreement with the U.S. military, since the Russians would not want to risk information they provided to the U.S. military being shared by the U.S. with the rebels.
Since the U.S. relies on this agreement to co-ordinate its operations in Syria with the Russians, unless the U.S. were prepared to risk a clash with the increasingly strong Russian force in Syria – risking World War III – it would have to cease its operations in Syria in order to avoid a clash with the Russians.
Since that is hardly what the U.S. wants, the option of intelligence sharing with the rebels in any meaningful way is also simply a non-starter.
As the U.S. hardliners undoubtedly know, the only thing that would be certain to change the situation in Syria in the rebels’ favour would be direct NATO military intervention on their behalf, which in order to be effective would have to involve the U.S. itself. Since that would again risk provoking World War III over an issue where most of the Western public supports Russia, that too is a non-starter.
The one suggestion that has been floated as a possible Plan B – the partition of Syria on sectarian lines – which we will doubtless be hearing much about in the coming weeks – is in reality also completely impractical.
Not only do opinion polls show the overwhelming majority of Syrians – including Sunni Syrians – oppose it, but in the event the Syrian government succeeds in consolidating its control of the populated western coastal region of Syria – where all Syria’s big cities are located – the only territory left in Syria for a Sunni state would be the desert.
Whilst territorially speaking this is a very large area, it is one which is also sparsely populated, is not self-sustaining and which has no access to the sea. A sectarian Sunni state established on this territory would be militarily undefendable and economically completely unviable.
The Syrian government would be determined to regain control of this territory once it had fully re-established and consolidated itself – and it would have international law on its side. With far greater resources at its disposal, and with the backing of Iran and Russia, the Syrian government would have no difficulty reconquering this territory unless the U.S. and NATO were prepared to send ground troops into this territory to defend it.
The idea of planting a permanent U.S. or NATO garrison in western Syria to defend what would be an economically unviable militant jihadi micro pseudo state – in effect the Islamic State under a new name – is a fantasy – as is any idea the U.S. and the West would be prepared to invest the huge sums needed to sustain it.
The U.S. and European public would never agree to such a thing, especially as it would be strongly opposed by Arab opinion, which would be horrified at the sight of the great Western powers once again carving up Arab lands as they did during the colonial era and when Israel was created.
The fact the key regional powers Iran and Iraq would also vigorously oppose such a partition plan, as would the big non-Western powers like China, India and Russia, and that such a plan would almost certainly fail to attract the support of the wider international community or of the United Nations, all but settles the issue.
Though this plan will no doubt find its supporters in the Western media, in reality it does not belong within the world of practical politics. The reality is the U.S. has no real option but to work with the Russians in Syria, and this in fact is what very grudgingly – and for all the fire and thunder coming from the hardliners – it is doing.
There are, however, two further points to make about the Wall Street Journal article.
The first is a minor one, which with the U.S. presidential election pending is now of mainly historical interest. It is that Obama has gone to ground. Though the article does not say so, it is clear from its contents that he was not physically present at the meetings in the White House where the hardliners made known their views. Instead of explaining – and defending – his policy in person to the hardliners, Obama has chosen to hide behind others – in this case his Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been left to take the heat for his boss. Where Harry Truman famously said the buck stopped with him, Obama makes sure it stops with someone else.
The second point is more important, and it is about the future. It is that the anger the hardliners feel does not bode well, and is absolutely not a cause for rejoicing, and certainly not for gloating. On the contrary, it is a cause for foreboding and for worry about the future. Far from accepting their defeat, on past experience the hardliners will now be looking for ways to get even with Russia. The fact they cannot do it in Syria will not hold them back, any more than failure in Vietnam in the 1970s held an earlier generation of U.S. hardliners back.
What happened then was that the hardliners “avenged” the U.S.’s defeat in Vietnam by setting Afghanistan on fire – with catastrophic consequences for the whole world including the U.S.
The fact Afghanistan turned out a disaster will, however, hardly deter the hardliners of today from acting in the same way. If there is one constant in U.S. foreign policy it is that when it comes to disasters it is the wrong lessons that always get learnt.
Far from being a factor in improving relations between the US and Russia, the fact the U.S. feels humiliated in Syria is going to make relations between the two countries even worse than they already are, and is storing up more problems for the future.
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Pentagon, CIA chiefs don’t think Russia will abide by Syria ceasefire
Emerging alliance of Russia hawks in cabinet exposes disagreement in the administration
President Barack Obama’s top military and intelligence advisers, convinced Russia won’t abide by a cease-fire in Syria, are pushing for ways to increase pressure on Moscow, including expanding covert military assistance for some rebels now taking a pounding from Russian airstrikes.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter; Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan have voiced increasingly tough views in White House meetings, calling for new measures to “inflict real pain on the Russians,” a senior administration official said.
The emerging alliance of Russia hawks exposes discord among defense and diplomatic officials and could put pressure on Mr. Obama to take stronger action against Moscow. But doing so risks pulling the U.S. deeper into a proxy fight in Syria, with Moscow showing little sign of lessening its support for President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian government said Tuesday it accepted the proposed cease-fire, announced a day earlier by the U.S. and Russia. But it said military operations would continue not only against Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front—both designated by the United Nations as terrorist organizations—but against “other terrorist groups connected to them” as well.
Russia and the Assad regime have branded all rebel groups as terrorists—further clouding prospects for any truce.
The opposition’s delegation to U.N.-mediated peace talks in Geneva said late Monday it supported the U.S.-Russia deal, with several conditions related to humanitarian issues.
Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria, launched last fall, has infuriated the CIA in particular because the strikes have aggressively targeted relatively moderate rebels it has backed with military supplies, including antitank missiles, U.S. officials say.
The Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday gave its conditional support to a proposed cease-fire that the international community hopes will revive peace talks in the war-torn country. The announcement comes less than a day after the U.S. and Russia agreed to implement the cease-fire on Saturday.
Officials say it was unclear whether stepped-up support would make much difference at this stage, given how much ground the CIA-backed rebels have lost in the recent pro-regime offensive.
Mr. Obama has been reluctant to allow either the U.S. or its regional partners to supply the rebels with advanced ground-to-air antiaircraft weapons to fend off airstrikes. While introducing that sort of system could be a game-changer, any decision to help the rebels directly go after Russian soldiers or destroy Russian airplanes could mark a dramatic escalation.
At the heart of the debate is how much confidence to place in diplomacy at this point in the Syria drama.
On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said there have been discussions within the administration over what strategy to pursue “in the event we don’t succeed” in negotiations. He noted the president has the ability to take additional actions against Moscow.
But Mr. Kerry also said that “this is a moment to try to see whether or not we can make this work, not to find ways to preordain its failure and start talking about all the downsides of what we might do afterward.”
Officials said neither Mr. Carter nor Gen. Dunford had formally submitted recommendations to Mr. Obama.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook declined to comment, as did a spokesman for the CIA director. Navy Capt. Greg Hicks, a spokesman for Gen. Dunford, said the general’s recommendations were private.
A senior administration official said of the White House’s review: “We’ll judge Russia by its actions, not its words.”
The official added: “To be clear: Our actions are not aimed at Russia. Our focus, however, does not change the fact that Russia, by increasingly involving itself in a vicious conflict on the side of a brutal dictator, will become enmeshed in a quagmire. Should it not change course, Russia’s fate will be self-inflicted.”
Aside from expanding the CIA program, other options under discussion include providing intelligence support to moderate rebels to help them better defend themselves against Russian air attacks and to possibly conduct more effective offensive operations, officials said.
Another option with wide support among Mr. Obama’s advisers would impose new economic sanctions against Russia. But senior administration officials said they doubt European powers would go along, given the importance they place on trade with Russia.
The drawn-out negotiations with Moscow this month over a cease-fire agreement in Syria exposed the growing rift within the administration.
Mr. Carter had publicly voiced support for the negotiations led by Mr. Kerry. But while the talks were under way last week, Messrs. Carter and Brennan, and Gen. Dunford, privately warned the White House they risked undermining Washington’s standing with regional partners in the two U.S.-led coalitions—one in support of anti-Assad rebels, the other fighting Islamic State, the senior officials said.
At one point last week, the Pentagon came close to withdrawing its representatives from the cease-fire talks after the Russians claimed military cooperation between the U.S. and Russia was part of the closed-door discussions, according to senior administration officials.
Mr. Carter was upset about the Russian claims because he had explicitly ruled out such discussions, the officials said.
The Pentagon believes Russia was trying to try to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its coalition partners and to make it look like Washington would support Moscow’s military campaign in Syria and accept Mr. Assad.
While Russia was engaged in the cease-fire talks, U.S. officials say its war planes stepped up their attacks on positions held by moderate rebels. Russia maintains its airstrikes are targeting terrorist groups.
Mr. Kerry believes Monday’s agreement has “a viable chance of succeeding,” according to a senior administration official close to the secretary.
In contrast, Mr. Carter told senior officials Monday that it won’t hold. “He thinks it’s a ruse,” a senior administration official said.
Messrs. Carter and Brennan and Gen. Dunford raised many of their concerns in meetings last week involving Mr. Kerry, White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, according to senior administration officials.
The senior administration official close to Mr. Kerry said the secretary recognized the challenge of ensuring Russian compliance. The official added that the agreement was partially intended to test whether Moscow can be trusted. If Russia doesn’t abide by the deal, then “Plan-B thinking needs to occur,” the official said.
Mr. Kerry has supported the CIA program in Syria in the past and has advocated for greater military involvement, such as the creation of a safe zone to protect the moderate opposition. But the Pentagon has been resistant to such ideas, warning they could lead to a conflict with Russia, administration officials have said.
Senior administration officials involved in the discussions said it is unclear whether Mr. Obama would support expanding the CIA program.
Ms. Rice, Mr. McDonough and other senior national security officials at the White House have voiced skepticism in the past about the CIA effort.
White House critics of the program warned that open-ended support for the rebels could pull the U.S. deeper into the conflict over time, with little chance of success as long as Moscow remains willing to increase its support to Mr. Assad, according to former administration officials.
Current and former officials said Mr. Obama was persuaded in 2013 to green-light the covert program in Syria in part because doing so gave the CIA influence over the actions of regional partners, including Saudi and Turkish intelligence, preventing them, for example, from introducing advanced antiaircraft weapons known as Manpads on the battlefield. Washington warned the weapons could fall into terrorist hands and be turned against commercial aircraft.
If the U.S. doesn’t take action to prevent moderate rebel forces from being wiped out by the Russian-backed offensive, then the Saudis or some other group could decide to break ranks with Washington and send large numbers of Manpads into northern Syria to shoot down Russian bombers, U.S. intelligence agencies have warned policy makers, increasing the chances of a wider conflict.
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