Washington Can Act Against Assad, but Really Doesn’t Want To

The cease-fire agreement in Syria looks like another expression of American weakness, one that hasn’t escaped the notice of other Mideast governments, a reserve Israeli general says.

A destroyed building in Qamishli, northeast Syria, September 13, 2016.
AFP / Delil Souleiman

A tiny ray of hope appeared in Syria’s skies this week. The cease-fire agreement drafted by Russia and the United States, which took effect Monday night, has generally been upheld. The fighting has declined sharply, as has the number of casualties.

True, aid convoys to besieged areas are being organized slowly, and pictures of the many children killed and wounded in the days before the truce still circulate on social media. But for the first time, there seems to be at least a slim chance of halting the bloodbath that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the last five and a half years.

The Americans, who played second fiddle to the Russians in arranging the cease-fire, have refused to divulge all the agreement’s provisions. But during the cease-fire talks in Geneva with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry continued to radiate his famous optimism. Upon returning to Washington he declared that for all the skepticism, the agreement might work, and it “may be the last chance we have to save a united Syria.”

He got a bit carried away there. The vision of a united, functioning Syria was buried in the ruins of Aleppo, Homs and Palmyra. The best-case scenario now is a gradual division of Syria, accompanied by a reduction in the violence. Kerry’s solution to the Assad regime’s continued assaults – which have included barrel bombs hurled from helicopters, the deliberate shelling of hospitals and breadlines, and the intentional starving of civilians – is too little, too late.

Kerry has also consistently avoided discussing the controversial U-turn in his country’s policy toward Syrian President Bashar Assad. Though neither he nor U.S. President Barack Obama says so openly, the administration has switched from viewing Assad as the main problem to part of the solution. The U-turn, which began when the administration backtracked on its plan to bomb regime targets after Assad’s massive use of chemical weapons in August 2013, is now complete.

The Americans’ eagerness to obtain agreements, any agreements, has turned Kerry into a kind of reverse King Midas in the Middle East. Despite his good intentions, almost everything he touches turns to failure.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion, who until a year ago was head of strategic planning for the General Staff, is now a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Alexei Druzhinin/AP

“It’s shocking to see how in the current round of talks, Russia, despite its weak cards, has once again managed to win the jackpot,” he told Haaretz. “The United States, the only real superpower, entered the negotiating room with strong cards but once again lost its shirt. With this deal, Russian President Vladimir Putin secured Assad a certificate of immunity against being toppled.”

Orion sees this as a direct continuation of America’s policy on the chemical-weapons issue. “The agreement reached then produced an exceptional strategic achievement that also benefited Israel greatly. The vast majority of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile was dismantled and removed from the country,” he said.

“But it also had real flaws. The regime preserved its production capability and its munitions. Both Assad and the Islamic State continued using chemical weapons, and Assad remained in power, even though he had violated an international convention and the Americans had defined his actions as crossing a red line.”

Orion believes that before the cease-fire, Washington missed another opportunity for effective military action against Assad. “Not every action requires boots on the ground,” he said.

“With the evidence the Americans possessed of continued chemical-weapons use, they could have wholly or partially destroyed the Syrian air force and the regime’s air defense system. That would have ensured a significant reduction in attacks on civilians even if the cease-fire ultimately collapses.”

Western diplomats ascribe America’s reluctance to take military action against Assad to the traumas of Afghanistan and Iraq, which made Americans think they only had two options: total war, which leads to quagmires, or no action at all. In reality, of course, America is involved in Syria. But for two years, its airstrikes have focused on the Islamic State – a terrifying extremist group but one responsible for far fewer atrocities in Syria than the Assad regime.

Europe is being flooded with Mideast refugees. Terrorists are striking in Europe and occasionally in America. British, French and American defense officials who attended this week’s conference at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya treated this as the new normal that will last for many more years. There will be more attacks by “lone wolves” and people returning from the wars in Syria and Iraq. There will be massive investments in security, accompanied by an erosion of civil liberties.

Orion doubts that the latest Syrian cease-fire will last. He sees the agreement as another expression of American weakness, one that hasn’t escaped the notice of other Mideast governments.

“What’s lacking isn’t ability, but will,” he said. “This lack of resoluteness also affects Israel, which is supported by the United States. As things look now, Assad is likely to survive, and the Iranian axis, backed by Russia, is growing stronger. This isn’t good news for Israel.”