Now that Secretary of State Kerry’s latest effort to forge a ceasefire in Syria is in ruins, he was right about at least one thing: That was the Obama administration’s last, best hope to lead warring sides toward a settlement.
It’s over. Despite Kerry’s insistence otherwise, his deal with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, ended ever since a relief convoy en route to Aleppo was attacked, which the U.S. blames on Russia. Given the startling haste and vigor with which Syrian and Russian forces resumed bombing in Aleppo, the Obama–Kerry strategy now lies in the Syrian desert looking like the wreckage of those helicopters Jimmy Carter sent into Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis.
Now what? If the only way to a resolution in Syria is to work with the Russians and this administration can’t see its way to doing so, it follows that President Obama will shortly hand his successor what the English call a dog’s dinner.
Here are three ingredients of that spoiled stew—three new realities the next president will have to face on Day One:
• No matter how much this administration and many pundits pretend Russia is playing catch-up as a wannabe great power, it has decisively trumped the Obama administration in Syria. Moscow is now in charge, at least for the time being.
Early indications are that this means an escalating war short on common mercies. The speed and force of the new Syrian–Russian campaign suggest that with the collapse September 9 deal, Moscow has decided that Washington’s not serious about a common solution and can be shoved to the side without much immediate risk.
Lavrov now has a lot of egg on his face at home for his efforts with Kerry. Even more significantly, President Putin has lately taken severe criticism from his nationalist right for his (modest) attempts to work with the Obama administration.
• Whatever Washington may do for the rest of Obama’s time in office and under his successor, it’s time to drop the “moderate rebels” theme. It’s now a proven loser.
Both sides failed to accomplish the tasks the collapsed ceasefire assigned. The significant point for the U.S. is that Kerry’s commitment to separating moderates from radicals on the battlefields was foolhardy because it can’t be done.
There are several reasons for this, some merely practical. Eliminating what’s called the marbling of rebel groups of various stripes would require some to leave their towns and districts to fight in unfamiliar areas where they have no ties. That’s not how Syria works.
But the biggest reason Kerry failed in this respect is that there seems to be little air between “moderates” and groups deemed more radical. More than Washington wants to admit, most of the militias on the battlefield are ideologically consonant.
In effect, the “freedom fighter” template doesn't apply in Syria, suggesting policy and strategy require a complete rethink. But there’s no sign, regrettably, that anyone in Washington is planning one.
• Russian air support for the Syrian forces’ quick return to combat suggests Moscow’s watching the calendar carefully. It wants to get as much done as it can before our elections in November, the concern being a Clinton victory.
Russia’s clear as to its intentions in Syria, as it has been all along: It wants to destroy the Islamic state and defend Damascus so that whatever a post–Assad era may look like can be negotiated in an orderly fashion.
Washington has instead favored “strategic ambiguity.” It does and doesn’t want to oust Assad; ISIS is and isn’t the No. 1 priority. This policy lies in ruins now, too—the Russians having grown self-evidently fed up with the Obama administration’s impossible-to-read blur.
Moscow has long worried that Hillary Clinton, if elected, will bring a more aggressive U.S. approach to the White House and her State Department. It’s probably the only reason Putin takes Donald Trump at all seriously, although the talk of a “bromance” is vastly overstated for political effect.
Russians are right to worry. Clinton has been banging the anti–Russian drum for months on the campaign trail. During the Democratic debates, she again called for a no-fly zone in Syria — a controversial position because it risks putting U.S. jets into conflict with Russians flying bombing missions.
It’s not Clinton’s new ideas that should worry either Russians or Americans. It’s the likelihood that she’ll sponsor what amounts to a more-of-the-same strategy in Syria: Arm “moderates” even as they remain marbled with al–Nusra militias, continue to oppose Damascus even as its forces fight against al–Nusra and the Islamic State.
Einstein said it best long ago: “Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.”