With a stroke, Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — Senate Finance chair backs budget action on fossil fuel subsidies Kerry: 'We can't get where we need to go' in climate fight if China isn't joining in MORE's peace deal with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has reversed nearly five decades of U.S. foreign policy and almost inconceivably made the Syrian catastrophe worse.
Under their agreement, the United States would join with Russia in airstrikes against the Nusra Front formerly an al Qaeda affiliate. It is the culmination of at least two years of Russian pressure for joint missions, not so much because Russia needs U.S. assistance, but because Russia wants the rest of the region to see America endorsing Russian power.
Strategically, it is a disaster. Put aside, for the moment, that the U.S. will be bombing the most committed enemies of Syrian President Bashar Assad and helping him stay in power, reversing its own policy. Put aside that Assad is a butcher who has gassed and barrel-bombed his own people, igniting a war that has claimed the lives of an estimated 600,000 people. Put aside that Russian military power is operating unchecked in the Middle East for the first time in recorded history. Put aside that the survival of Assad is a boon for Iran and Russia, a boon for any autocrat who refuses to compromise, and a boon to any rogue state which defies U.S. norms.
The long-term ramifications are worse.
For half a century, it has been American policy to prevent any hostile state in the Middle East from achieving their aims by means of Russian power. In the darkest first days of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the Nixon administration began an emergency airlift of weapons to Israel not because Nixon loved Israel, but because Egypt and Syria could not be allowed to achieve their goals with Russian arms and Russian support. If they wanted their land back from Israel, they would have to play by American rules and buy into the peace process. If they didn't, and were successful, it would encourage every dissatisfied state to try the same, and war would increase as American influence plummeted. But Egypt and Syria failed in their war, and Russian influence plummeted, and the region began to fall into a recognized American order. Saudi leadership. Peace with Israel. Joint cooperation against Iran.
The Gulf War in 1990 was such a success because in addition to the successful expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Russia and Syria joined America in punishing a Russian ally that had transgressed this order. It was the best imprimatur we could have hoped for to end the Cold War and endorse America's Middle East: our former adversary not only acquiescing totally to American norms, but insisting on their enforcement. It was, in other words, the exact opposite of Kerry's Syrian deal.
The stakes are impossibly vast. In any region, states are constantly making a thousand-and-one decisions about how many of America's wishes they should accommodate, and how many they should ignore. In a strategically vital region like the Middle East, these are decisions like how much oil to pump; how much to buy into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; how much to defy Iran, the biggest Middle Eastern state and the region's natural hegemon; how much to democratize; how much to fight Islamic terrorism; how much to support terrorism. Since the Gulf War, states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and even prewar Syria mostly deferred to America. If they begin deferring to Russia — as many did before 1967 — the world will look a lot more dangerous.
Even worse, apparently unsatisfied with limiting its debacle to Syria, the administration has implicitly linked the war to other concessions in its foreign policy. Kerry discusses both Ukraine and Syria with Russia, but stresses Syria, which he obviously values more; since 2015, Kerry has been offering American assistance with Ukraine for Russian assistance on Syria. America is thus in the absurd position of giving Russia what it wants in Ukraine – American pressure on Kiev – in exchange for what Russia wants in Syria — Assad surviving and American endorsement of its use of force.
Even on humanitarian grounds — the only grounds on which this deal can possibly be justified — it is a failure. The immediate humanitarian crisis is not a result of the Nusra Front. It is a result of Assad's forces besieging Aleppo for most of the past year, leaving only a thin rebel-held corridor, constantly under Russian air attack, to the outside. Over the past month, the rebels' situation had unexpectedly improved, thanks largely to a Nusra Front-led counterattack against Syrian government forces.
Not only does this peace deal allow Russian planes to continue bombing the rebels, since Nusra Front forces are mixed in with other units, but it enables Russia and Syria to continue their offensive to close Aleppo's last corridor — and thus conquer the city — without technically violating the cease-fire. It is utterly nonsensical.
Rather than exert any pressure on Russia or the Syrian government at all — as 51 State Department diplomats urged in June — the Obama administration gives and gives and gives. It is a miracle gumball machine, and the damage it has done to America's position in the Middle East will be irreversible.
Peek is a professor at Pepperdine University. He was previously a strategic adviser to the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.
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