After a long walk on a stony path in the wee hours of Saturday in Geneva, Secretary of State John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, finally reached a Syrian ceasefire agreement – again.
A week-long “cessation of hostilities” is to begin Monday, during which aid and relief agencies will have unrestricted access to distressed areas. If that holds, the US and Russia will establish a command and control center where they will share data and coordinate air attacks on the Islamic State and other extremist militias.
This is the ninth attempt to structure a peace process since the Arab League had a try at one five years ago. Should hope triumph over experience this time?
Kerry’s agreement with Lavrov, which has taken months to get airborne, is as laden with a heavy cargo of pitfalls as their previous deal, signed in Munich last February. Plenty of people already predict another crash landing.
But you don’t need hope to support this achievement. You need a dose of reality. Cooperation between Washington and Moscow offers not merely the best path to ending Syria’s multi-sided war: It’s the only path left if the country is and its people are to survive. That’s Kerry’s implicit position and why he has been a lonely diplomat lately. Here’s a snapshot of the horror and devastation from the Syria Policy Center.
- 470,000 have been killed, directly or indirectly by the conflict.
- 1 in 10 Syrians has been wounded.
- Life expectancy dropped from 70.5 years in 2010 to 55.4 years in 2015.
- 95% of doctors have either fled or been killed.
- 85% are living in poverty.
- From 2011-2015, joblessness rose from 14.9% to 52.9%.
It had to hurt when President Obama voiced a vote of little confidence at the G–20 meeting in Hangzhou last week. Also, Defense Secretary Carter and most top brass at the Pentagon, preferring confrontation with Moscow, have been actively sabotaging Kerry’s dogged diplomatic demarche for months.
Viewed in this light, Kerry just won a battle in Washington’s foreign policy war. And while his pact with Lavrov looks weak in some respects, it has one strength long missing from previous efforts to forge a peace plan.
The Arab League tried twice to broker talks, in 2011. Then Russia tried on its own. Then the U.N. and the Arab League took a joint run at it. Then Russia tried again. Two years ago the U.N. sponsored a Geneva conference.
Nothing times six.
Only a year ago did things get serious. Talks in Vienna last October brought the US, Russia, the EU, China, and several Middle East nations—including Iran—to the same mahogany table. That was a prelude to Kerry’s bilateral deal with Moscow last February—and the February deal was the precursor to last Saturday’s agreement.
The strength in Kerry’s strategy lies in his (belated) recognition of what time it is: It’s time to stop assuming that whatever Russia wants the US must reject. When he talks to Lavrov he’s telling Americans something we ought not to miss: We can no longer treat Syria as a Cold War-ish theater of great-power rivalry—a whole country and its inhabitants marked down as collateral damage.
In this aspect, Kerry’s new deal turns the Syria conflict into a lab experiment: Can the US advance beyond old habits to work toward shared goals with a nation it doesn’t trust?
The New York Times report of the Kerry–Lavrov agreement had a long list of the accord’s “many risks of failure.” Russia is implicitly charged with restricting the Assad government’s air campaign to ISIS and al–Nusra, al–Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Will it? Can it?
There is the problem of “marbling,” as it is called in Moscow: US–backed opposition groups have long been interwoven with al–Nusra and Washington is now responsible for getting them to separate. Will it? Can it?
What about civilian casualties as bombing campaigns resume under joint direction? What measures can be taken (and by whom) against those who may violate the agreement? What about the Hezbollah militias fighting ISIS on behalf of the Assad government?
These are unknowns for the moment. And there is one other that is larger than any of these.
Washington has long cultivated “strategic ambiguity” in the Syrian war. For years it has been impossible to tell whether the US priority is fighting ISIS or ousting the Assad regime—which, for all its faults, is committed to defeating the Islamic State and has a sovereign state’s rights under international law.
The blur has to go now. The bitter truth is that Assad has to be left in power until ISIS is decisively defeated and a transition government can be negotiated. Libyan-style chaos is the only alternative.
Kerry doesn’t have to persuade the Russians of this: They’ve signaled 100 times that it’s their guiding principle in Syria. The secretary’s adversaries on this point are the Pentagon and the C.I.A., which has been arming anti–Assad militants—sometimes very carelessly—for years.
Some rebel groups think the US has now given up on them, the Financial Times reported over the weekend. “Neither Washington nor Moscow appear willing to give the opposition any more time,” the paper noted. Could be. But here’s our new reality. As of Saturday, peace or war in Syrian hangs in the balance of such questions.
Either way, Kerry is right to try, and this works two ways. One, the search for peace in Syria can’t be forsaken by any humane standard.
Two, it’s time for the State Department to claw back control over foreign policy after letting it slip to the Pentagon all through the Cold War decades. The Cold War is over this way, too.