The recently concluded Russia and US-brokered peace accord on Syria has many opponents inside Syria and internationally. The Islamic State and Jabhat an-Nusra – the groups not covered by the truce agreement – control more than half of the country’s territory, including Aleppo, oil deposits and pipeline routes.
The Ahrar ash-Sham and Jaish al-Islam groups have refused to support the agreement if Jabhat an-Nusra is not a party to it.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Germany’s Der Spiegel newspaper last week that Syria’s moderate opposition should be provided with anti-aircraft missiles «to change the balance of power on the ground».
Turkey expressed caution and pessimism about the implementation of the truce amid continuing violence.
In view of many snags on the way, the US is considering a set of options, including tearing up the just concluded agreement to put in doubt its credibility as a reliable partner.
Speaking on February 23, US Secretary of State John Kerry warned of the prospect of a more violent Syria if a cease-fire agreed to with Russia fails to lead to a political transition for the war-torn country. The Secretary admitted that, that Russia played a key role in the peace plan. «Without Russia's cooperation I'm not sure we would have been able to have achieved the agreement we have now, or at least get the humanitarian assistance in», he noted. He also spoke of Russia’s broad cooperation in Vienna’s meetings on Syria, which «could not have happened without Russia’s input», as well as Moscow’s teamwork in reaching Iran’s nuclear deal.
But then the US foreign chief warned the situation in Syria «could get a lot uglier» if the fighting goes on among multiple factions, including government forces and opposition groups. «It may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria if we wait much longer», he said.
Speaking on the options, Kerry referred multiple times to a «Plan B» alternative to diplomacy.
It is the first time Kerry has spoken of partition and the first admission of the fact than Plan B (a far larger military effort – the kind of conflict that the US has been trying to avoid) exists. Many Republicans, including Donald Trump, are calling for a «safe zone» in northern Syria, allegedly, to protect the increasing number of displaced people.
In their recent meetings in the White House, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine General Joseph Dunford, and Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan have voiced increasingly hawkish views towards Russia, the Wall Street Journal reported on February 23 citing a senior administration official.
Adam Entous, the author of the often cited Wall Street Journal article, writes that US intelligence agencies have warned Obama that if the US leaves so-called «moderate» militants at Russia’s mercy, then the Saudis or some other group could break ranks with America and send portable anti-aircraft weapons to Syria to down Russian warplanes. 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.
On February 24, Secretary Kerry elaborated on the plan. He said it would take 15,000 to 30,000 ground troops to maintain a so called «safe zone» inside northern Syria, citing previously unheard estimates provided by the Pentagon.
«Our Pentagon estimates that to have a true safe zone in the north of the country you may have upwards of fifteen to thirty thousand troops. Now are we ready to authorize that? Are we ready to put them on the ground?» Kerry asked the Senate panel. The Secretary said that creating a safe zone isn't as simple as it sounds. In addition to controlling the airspace, Kerry said, a large troop presence would be required to shield the population from Islamic State attacks on the ground. In late November, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration was pressing Turkey to send additional troops to seal its border with Syria. Pentagon officials estimated that it could take as many as 30,000 troops to seal the border on the Turkish side to enable a broader humanitarian mission.
In early December, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Pentagon estimated that the ground force needed to enforce a safe zone in northern Syria would be «substantial».
Two of America’s most seasoned diplomats – Nicholas Burns, a former US undersecretary of state for political affairs, and James Jeffrey, former US ambassador to Iraq and Turkey – argued recently in The Washington Post that Russia should be invited to participate in the coalition that secures the safe zone, but that the United States and its partners should establish one anyway, in the event that Russia refuses.
Moscow is unaware of the availability of US plan B for Syria, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told a conference of the Valdai discussion club titled «Middle East: From Violence to Safety».
«US statements on the availability of some plan B give rise to concern. We know nothing about it», he said. «We are confident that now we should focus all efforts on implementing the ceasefire agreements that have been reached».
Creating any kind of «safe zone» in Syria without the UN Security Council’s «say so» or the consent of Syrian government is a flagrant violation of international law. Inking an agreement on Syria with Russia and, almost simultaneously, discussing with lawmakers a plan B, which envisions the deployment of thousands of troops, is an example of dope-the-rope tactics. It puts into question the reliability of the US as negotiation partner. Creating a no-fly zone would most likely mean the US would have to enforce that rule against Russian jets – a potentially dangerous scenario. Aside from the inherent physical and political risks of putting a large number of American troops on the ground inside Syria, the US effort to partition the country will inevitability result in resistance and possible confrontation with Russia. This is a very dangerous development of event to make the entire diplomatic effort go down the drain.