Russia-U.S. Standoff over Syria: Why a Peaceful Deal with Assad Is the Only Way out
On September 14, 2013, Russia and the USA seem to have agreed on specific terms of Syria's disarmament. The decision was preceded by escalation of tensions between the two as a result of America's ambition to launch strikes against Assad's military facilities. But to anyone who knows recent history of U.S. military operations Barack Obama's Syria plan seems highly inconsistent and likely to fail.
The military operation in Syria, whatever form it takes, would still aim at weakening the Assad regime to give the rebels a strategic edge. But a point which seems to be completely ignored by the Obama administration is that the opposition in Syria is not homogeneous. As Mr. Putin puts in his recent op-ed in the New York Times, "There are more than enough Al-Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations." The Obama administration clearly failed to adequately assess composition of the Syrian opposition before embarking on its plan to engage in the country. Quite convincing evidence of this was obtained by the New York Times, which posted a video showing the execution of Syrian soldiers by a group of rebels. When asked if those rebels could be considered U.S. allies, John Kerry argued that "those men in those videos are disadvantaged by the U.S. response to the chemical weapons used, because it, in fact, empowers moderate opposition." It's not entirely clear why moderate opposition and not extremists would be empowered by the U.S. response, when telling between the two is very hard.
Apart from the graphic execution video the evidence of the opposition's brutality includes statements by Carla Del Ponte, UN commissioner on human rights in Syria, about the rebel nature of the April chemical attack and pictures of rebels and their launching facilities for such weapons. Quite logically, the use of military power against Assad could benefit the rebels in a way that the Obama administration expects least of all.
Violent solution to the crisis could bring about a whole new layer of problems for the region, with which the USA and its allies would inevitably need to deal. A group of actors is radically opposed to the renewed presense of the U.S. in the region, they are Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah. There is no doubt that in the event of the operation the two will engage in conflict as well and their primary target would be Israel.
The potential U.S. intervention will be free of any serious tactical aviation, and Joint Direct Attack Munition will not be used. The operation will rely on long-range cruise missiles and will bear a resemblance to the 1998 bombing of Iraq by the U.S. and the UK (Operation Desert Fox). Back then, Iraq failed to comply with UN Security Council resolutions, which resulted in a four-day bombing campaign. In 1998, sea-launched Tomahawks were mostly used, which resulted in high weapons costs but no human losses for the Pentagon. So it is largely believed that in order to make the operation against Syria effective the U.S. would need to spend a lot of money of cruise missiles. Just as the 1998 campaign in Iraq didn't solve the problem and had no effect on the country's WMD infrastructure, the operation against Syria is unlikely to succeed. The operation will fall short of stopping the civil war, there are doubts that the Assad regime will be weakened without the imposition of a no-fly zone, chemical weapons will still be there, and it will be a matter of time until they are used again either by the government or rebels.
The issue of peaceful solution to the problem that was put on the table by Vladimir Putin is seen by many as his major victory over Barack Obama. Positioning himself as peace proponent and having strong influence over Bashar al-Assad, Russia's president certainly scores high in this stand-off, but what's also important, he saves Obama from imminent failure in Syria, from what chess players would call a zugzwang. Involvement in Syria would mean a huge blow to Obama's reputation with no result guaranteed, thus a deal with Assad is a win-win for all.