The future direction of the Syrian civil war is likely to depend on the immediate actions of the United States, writes JOHN HAYLETT
US Secretary of State John Kerry always projects an image of assured authority in his pronouncements on Syria, but recent statements have veered from one extreme to another.
Kerry was said by his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov at the weekend to have prioritised pushing “provisions that would take the heat off al-Nusra, which directs the militants in the unliberated parts of eastern Aleppo,” only to shift position on Friday.
The Russian Foreign Minister welcomed suggestions made by Kerry in Rome that he adjudged as in line with those of Russian experts, announcing on Saturday that Moscow would immediately send military officials and diplomats to Geneva to work out a joint plan of action for Aleppo in line with US proposals.
The new Kerry proposals, according to an enthusiastic Lavrov, “would ensure the withdrawal of all militants without exception from eastern Aleppo, provide unimpeded humanitarian supplies to the city’s residents and ensure the establishment of normal life in eastern Aleppo.”
All bets were off again by Tuesday when Kerry made clear that talks scheduled for yesterday would not take place.
The US diplomat noted, as though to temper the disappointment occasioned by his negative statement, that he and Lavrov are due to meet in Hamburg today and could try to find a way forward.
He declared his hope that Russia would “understand the imperative of getting to that table, having the negotiation and of not inflaming passions more with the total destruction of Aleppo.”
If Kerry believed that this would persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies to halt the military liberation of insurgent-occupied areas of eastern Aleppo, he was wrong.
The Syrian army is in no mood to allow its currently reeling adversaries time to regroup and re-equip.
As Lavrov put it bluntly, “those who refuse to leave on good terms will be destroyed. There is no other way out.”
One interesting comment emerging from Kerry’s press conference in Brussels on Tuesday — apart from junking yesterday’s planned meeting with Lavrov — was his acknowledgement that it was US-aligned rebel forces rather than the Assad regime that rejected a “nationwide ceasefire” in October 2015 during a US-Russia joint initiative.
“The opposition would not buy into a ceasefire. People chose to fight,” he said.
Even though Moscow had just begun aerial support to Damascus, the opposition felt that the military impetus was with its forces, incapable then of realising the massive morale boost that the Syrian army received by virtue of the Russian air force imposing its authority over Syrian air space, especially through provision of its advanced S300 and S400 anti-aircraft missile systems.
Russia’s decisive action spiked the possibility of the US opting to challenge for air supremacy over Syria.
Kerry admitted in October at a meeting with the Syrian opposition at the Dutch Mission to the United Nations in New York that he had lost the battle within the Obama administration for the use of force.
“I lost the argument. I’ve argued for the use of force. I’m the guy who stood up and announced that we’re going to attack Assad for the use of weapons,” he said.
The US Secretary of State was still licking his wounds then after failing
to string out a unilateral ceasefire by pro-Assad forces by insisting to Moscow that he was still trying to persuade “moderate” US-supplied rebels to distance themselves from al-Qaida affiliates.
This was supposed to be a prelude to joint US-Russian action to neutralise al-Qaida and Islamic State (Isis) and assist talks between government and “moderate” rebel representatives.
The reality of that “ceasefire” was that opposition integration rather than separation took place, rebels attacked truce-observing forces and jihadists warned that humanitarian convoys to eastern Aleppo, by the UN or whoever, would be attacked.
They were as good as their word, yet Western politicians, media and humanitarian agencies retain as sacred truth that the September 19 2015 attack on a UN humanitarian convoy in rebel-held territory was carried out by Moscow or Damascus, as charged immediately by Washington.
Why either Russia or Syria would choose to torpedo a ceasefire, however shaky, and the possibility of joint action with the US, for which they had worked for a year, by a wanton terrorist act beggars belief, but it had its desired effect.
A procession of Western political leaders — most linked with the 21st-century litany of imperialist military interventions and massacres — has demanded reference of pro-Assad military activity to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on suspicion of war crimes.
Neither Russia nor Syria recognises ICC authority. Nor indeed does the US, despite its constant referral of other states for investigation.
Kerry himself illustrated Washington’s Alice Through the Looking Glass attitude towards legal regulations when explaining why US warplanes couldn’t bomb Assad forces.
“The problem is the Russians don’t care about international law and we do. And we don’t have a basis, our lawyers tell us, unless we have a [UN] security council resolution.
“They were invited in, we were not. We don’t behave like Russians. It’s just a different standard.”
He pointed out that going after Assad would require taking out all air defences “and we don’t have a legal justification for doing that. So far, American legal theory does not buy into the so-called right to protect.”
Countless Afghans and Iraqis would concur with Kerry’s “different standard” reference, if not in the same sense, appreciating that it may be only the Russian-installed air defences that have prevented US actions in Syria similar to what their nations suffered.
The ceasefire call rang out again yesterday when Nour el-Din el-Zinki, which is allied to the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, urged a five-day cessation of hostilities to permit evacuation of civilians and talks over Aleppo’s future.
Nour el-Din el-Zinki, which, as a “moderate” Islamist group, received US-made TOW anti-tank missiles, distinguished itself in the atrocity stakes by beheading, for video, a Palestinian boy it accused of fighting for Assad.
Its call will probably, and justifiably, fall on deaf ears. The sooner the four-year terrorist occupation of eastern Aleppo is ended, the better for civilians there.
Even UN humanitarian leaders are singing a slightly different tune at present, as the total liberation of Aleppo draws near.
UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura urged Nusra Front fighters last Thursday to leave Aleppo, as this would “contribute to avoiding bloodshed and increase our leverage on insisting on an urgent pause.”
UN humanitarian affairs under-secretary and emergency relief co-ordinator Stephen O’Brien acknowledged that insurgent forces in eastern Aleppo had indeed, as Damascus alleged previously, opened fire against civilians trying to leave the opposition-occupied enclave.
Neither of these comments has received widespread media coverage, just as outlets that describe every Russian or Syrian bombing of jihadist-dominated areas as centred on a hospital have exhibited scant concern over the deaths of Russian medical personnel under artillery shelling in Aleppo.
The city’s impending liberation will largely rob the jihadist opposition of its ability to use civilians as human shields in an urban environment, although Kerry, echoed by EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini, asserts that Aleppo’s liberation will not signal an end to the war.
To an extent, that is dependent in the short term on which Kerry speaks out — the one backing the insurgency with every means possible or the one prepared to work with Lavrov to secure a lasting peace.