The US-Russia relations fell to a new low on October 4 as the Obama administration announced it was pulling out of the agreement with Russia on Syria. The US Defense Department announced it was withdrawing from Geneva the personnel dispatched to open a joint implementation center, in which Russian and American military were going to join efforts, including coordination of air strikes and sharing military intelligence and operations-related information, to fight Islamic State and other jihadi groups. The center would have become operational, if the cessation of hostilities had taken hold.
The suspension of talks came only hours after Russia backed out of a joint deal with the US to dispose of nuclear material.
The Syria agreement was part of a year-long effort to bring a negotiated political end to the war. In exchange for using Russia’s leverage with Syrian President Assad to ground his air force and allow humanitarian aid to flow, the United States said it would separate the moderate rebel groups it supports from more radical factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham), the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda. Washington has failed in its commitment, accusing Russia and the Syrian government forces of using the time to strike rebel-held portions of Aleppo.
According to Russia’s Foreign Ministry’s statement, «Washington’s decision to suspend talks with Russia on Syria is evidence of the Obama Administration’s inability to implement the key condition of continued cooperation with Russia aimed at settling the Syrian conflict. Or maybe the US administration never intended to do so. We increasingly believe that Washington, seeking to bring about a power change in Damascus, is ready to make a deal with the devil, that is, to join forces with outright terrorists who want to turn the tide of history and who are enforcing their inhuman values in the occupied territories».
The end of contacts on Syria suggests there is little hope for a diplomatic solution to end the war emerging anytime soon.
There is each and every reason to believe that the shift of US position is a result of the Pentagon’s stiff opposition to any coordination of efforts with Russia, especially at a time when it is pushing for much greater US military involvement in the Syrian conflict.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has won, making the efforts of State Secretary John Kerry go down the drain, at the time Barack Obama, the lame duck President, badly needs a success in Syria before he leaves office.
Washington had said before breaking the talks that it would consider other options, including additional financial sanctions or even military operations.
By and large, the «Plan B» offers four options: a no-fly-zone, safe zones, attacking the Syrian air force and arming the Syrian rebels with additional weaponry. Each option carries significant risk of escalation or blowback. For instance, «safe» and «no-fly» zones would require US combat aircraft to intercept and possibly shoot down Russian and Syrian warplanes entering into the designated area. A strike against President Assad’s military is tantamount to committing an overt act of war against Syria with Russian military advisors, embedded with Syrian government forces, to be caught in the crossfire. A shooting war could easily escalate out of control. The consequences could be dire.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration has recently revived an internal discussion over giving US-vetted Syrian rebels new weapons systems to help them fend off Syrian and Russian artillery and air power. Under another option, Washington could give a green light to partners in the region, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to provide the rebels with more weapons unilaterally. US intelligence officials and their counterparts in the region have been holding secret talks about these and other so-called «Plan B» options, officials in the region said on October 3.
It should be noted, that this approach does take into account the fact that the United States is not at war with Syria and there is no UN resolution authorizing American forces to operate inside that nation. Even ongoing US military operations inside Syria, such as sending Special Operations Forces (SOF) teams and air strikes, are technically illegal.
With all the negative effects to follow as a result of breaking up with Russia, the US would have gained much more by standing by its commitments according to the reached agreement. There is no doubt it could have separated the opposition groups if it wanted to, or frankly talked the problems over with Russian counterparts, including unexpected hindrances emerged to obstruct the fulfillment of the commitments.
With cessation of hostilities holding out and extremist groups sidelined, Syria’s government and the main rebel factions would have no choice but try to come to terms. It would be a foreign policy achievement and a legacy President Obama would be remembered for. By keeping up its end of the bargain, the US would have done no favor to anybody. Nobody else, but State Secretary John Kerry said in his comments on the Russia-US agreement that «Going after Nusra is not a concession to anybody».
According to him, «It is profoundly in the interests of the United States».
The next administration may be Democratic, but it will not vindicate President Obama if Syria continues to crumble with the US losing its credibility in the Middle East and elsewhere. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has said he considers Russia as an ally in Syria. As the election campaign continues, he can use to his advantage the failures of the current administration to coordinate efforts with Russia in Syria.
The contacts on Syria could be resumed with a new US president in office, but a lot of things can happen till then. The worst can be prevented, if Obama reins in hawks, including the top military brass calling for irresponsible actions that have nothing to do with the interests of common Americans reluctant to see their country involved overseas conflicts.
After all, it’s not all doom and gloom even after the US pulled out from the agreement. The suspension will not affect contacts between the two countries aimed at de-conflicting counter-terrorism operations in Syria. Russia and the US can communicate at multilateral talks, including the International Syria Support Group, over Syria aimed at achieving a cessation of hostilities and the delivery of aid. The United Nations is also a forum for discussions.
It’s also not the end of efforts to uphold a Russia-US dialogue on burning issues of mutual concern. Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, came to Russia on October 4, the next day the suspension of the agreement was announced. Ukraine, not Syria, topped the agenda of the talks, but the very fact of her visit demonstrates the importance the US attaches to the relations with Moscow. The Assistant Secretary is a confidant of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. If Mrs. Clinton wins the presidential race, Mrs. Nuland will likely be offered a top position in a new administration. It makes her visit even more significant.
The Russia-US crisis management efforts in Syria have suffered a serious setback. But it does not make the two countries enemies that need to fight each other. True, the bilateral relations are, probably, at the lowest ebb since the Cold War. But there is no endemic reason for them to be as tense as they have become. Russia and the US have a great deal in common when it comes to the security agenda of both nations. But it was the US who breached the plutonium agreement.
And it was the United States who failed to comply with the cessation of hostilities in Syria agreement.
The current administration could avoid the steps leading to further deterioration of relations till the end of its tenure. At least, President Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, could shelve «Plan B» - a prudent and logical step to take for someone wise enough to keep trouble at bay.