Ostensibly, the purpose of the ceasefire is to allow aid convoys from Turkey to bring badly-needed supplies to the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo. Some 250,000 people in have been cut off since July.
The agreement, announced on on Sept. 9, is to be renewed every 48 hours, providing it holds. After a week, the U.S. and Russian air forces would then expand their co-operation and stage joint air attacks against Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the al-Nusra Front.
This is the second agreement brokered by the U.S. and Russia. An earlier deal, announced on Feb. 22, proved short-lived. It’s unlikely this agreement will be any more successful.
The agreement calls for the U.S. and Russia to establish “a joint integration centre,” where officials could decide on “shared targets” and “co-ordinated military strikes.”
The U.S. is tasked with separating “moderate” elements from radical jihadist groups. Given the fluidity of these organizations, how readily militants switch between them and how frequently opportunistic battlefield alliances are formed by the jihadist organizations, the U.S. has no effective means to identify the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ jihadists.
The risk is that the U.S. will be blamed for Russian attacks against American-sponsored rebel groups. As one U.S. official said, “the Russians aren’t using precision-guided munitions in Syria, which gives them a perfect excuse to say, ‘Sorry, we weren’t aiming for your guys.’”
When the Kremlin intervened in the war, its principal aim was to shore up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and transform the political reality in Syria by making the Assad government the only realistic alternative that the U.S. and its European allies could support. It has largely accomplished this.
The U.S. has stopped short of declaring its support for the Assad government. But by allowing its proxies on the ground to be attacked and marginalized, it has effectively accepted Assad as the best of bad alternatives.
More significantly, the steady Islamization and radicalization of the rebel groups means that even if the U.S. rolls back Islamic State, the war will continue between the undemocratic, but secular, Russian- and Iranian-supported Assad government, and one or more rebel alliances, supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, committed to the establishment of an undemocratic Islamic state under Sharia law.
Should the rebels prevail, there could be another civil war between the various Sunni groups to determine who will dominate the new Islamic State. Or the other jihadists will coalesce around one of the larger rebel factions. If that turns out to be an al-Qaeda-linked organization, then the U.S.-led effort in Syria will have accomplished little more than replacing the original Islamic State with a far larger al-Qaeda-linked version.
This is a no-win situation for the U.S. Either it accepts the continuation of a pro-Russian and pro-Iranian regime – which will expand their influence in the region and pit Washington against its traditional Turkish and Saudi allies – or it will find that its military effort to destroy the original Islamic State simply paved the way for the creation of another, equally dangerous Islamic state.
President Barack Obama’s Syrian policy has severely damaged American credibility in the region. The willingness with which the U.S. has abandoned its proxies in the Syrian ground war will not be easily forgotten. Neither will the complete ineffectiveness of its foreign policy in Syria.
The U.S remains the world’s only superpower, but it has allowed Russia and Turkey to manipulate it for their own ends in Syria. And it has financed a war whose possible outcomes will likely prove equally disagreeable for western interests. It has allowed the Kremlin to largely set the agenda for Russian-American engagement and it has consistently failed to set out a coherent strategy to deal with the violence in Syria.
The U.S. may ultimately defeat the Islamic State. What will follow, however, will likely be just as inimical to America’s long-term interests in the region. This is not how a great power is supposed to conduct its foreign policy. That won’t be lost on America’s friends or its ever-growing list of enemies in the Middle East.
Joseph Micallef is a historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics.