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Did Syria strikes kill any chance of diplomacy?

French President Emmanuel Macron wants the world to seize the moment. After Friday night's strikes against...

Posted: Apr 16, 2018 12:19 PM
Updated: Apr 16, 2018 12:19 PM

French President Emmanuel Macron wants the world to seize the moment. After Friday night's strikes against regime targets in Syria, he's demanding a concerted drive to resurrect the international peace process, last seen late in 2016. Whether anyone listens may decide if Syria turns the corner towards peace or descends into an even more dangerous cycle of destruction.

The strikes themselves were not about regime change or forcing Assad to negotiate, but about deterring the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, which remains free to kill Syrians with conventional methods.

As David Miliband, the CEO of the International Rescue Committee, puts it, the strikes "will become a historical footnote unless they are matched by a diplomatic offensive of sustained and serious character."

Speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, Macron said the priority must be to "initiate negotiations as soon as possible on a credible and inclusive political process," according to a statement from the Elysee Palace. It was a message he repeated after the strikes to US President Donald Trump and the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Maybe the barest bones of such preparation are beginning to emerge. The US, UK and France, supported by Germany, agree that Syria's chemical weapons must be destroyed once and for all; there must be an immediate ceasefire; and that the Syrian regime has to accept a "substantial agenda' at the UN Geneva talks that would lead to what the French UN ambassador, Fran-ois Delattre, calls an 'inclusive political solution.'

Bare bones indeed, and there won't be immediate progress in the current atmosphere. There are also plenty of headwinds.

The US and Russia

For any sort of diplomacy to occur, the downward spiral of US-Russia relations needs to be arrested. In an interview with Fox News on Sunday, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said there were "multiple issues we have with Russia right now;" and she said more sanctions were coming this week.

On a whole range of issues, from arms control to the mutual expulsions of diplomats after the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK and the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 election campaign, relations are at their worst for decades. The tough sanctions imposed by Washington against members of Putin's inner circle this month have compounded the crisis.

But after three years of military engagement, Russia won't easily give up its victories in Syria, victories designed to show it is still a great power and an effective ally, as well as give it a foothold in the Mediterranean.

Looking for a US plan

US policy towards Syria is incoherent. Shortly before he was fired, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson set aside $200 million to stabilize northern Syria, where Kurdish-led militias who defeated ISIS are supported by some 2,000 US troops. There were plans to build a 30,000-strong border protection force. (Tillerson's speech, the only expression of the Trump Administration's policy towards Syria, has now been 'archived' on the State Department website.)

President Trump then froze the $200 million and said he wanted US forces out of northern Syria "very soon. Let the other people take care of it now," he told a rally in March.

But a unilateral US withdrawal would leave the Kurds vulnerable to the regime, the Iranians and the Turks; ISIS remnants will sniff out opportunities in the chaos.

Other US officials, including Haley, have tried to temper talk of a withdrawal, but Assad may conclude that if he waits long enough, the US will lose interest. After all, Trump said on Friday: "No amount of American blood or treasure can produce lasting peace and security in the Middle East."

Why, then, make concessions? "Waiting out half-hearted enemies is a key Assad survival tool," says Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

There are certainly no signs that the regime is ready to discuss anything that would challenge Assad's hold on power. And so the political opposition won't come to the table.

Turkey eyes opportunities

Turkey may be part of the "triad" with Iran and Russia but is very much going its own way in northern Syria, consolidating its influence into a chunky bargaining chip for the future. Its troops already occupy Afrin, a mixed Kurdish-Arab area and it is eyeing further incursions against the Kurdish militia -- the YPG -- that has worked with the US against ISIS. President Erdogan has said he will not rest until the YPG are driven from every part of the Syrian border.

Turkish forces, much to the Assad regime's fury, are also in Idlib -- ostensibly to guard a mythical de-confliction zone, but in reality to deter the regime from attacking the last rebel holdouts.

Iran at the gates

The Iranian "Quds" force has spent some four years entrenching itself in Syria. Try getting it to leave. The dream of The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (of which the Quds is part) is a land bridge of Shia influence from Tehran to the shores of the Mediterranean, and within shooting range of Israel.

Responding to the weekend strikes the IRGC promised the United States that future events in the region "will not be to their interest."

To Israel, the growing presence of the IRGC and Hezbollah in southern Syria is alarming. It has already carried out air-strikes against several Iran-linked targets in Syria, including the base near Homs which likely sent an armed drone into Israeli airspace in February. In response, the leader of the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, closely aligned with Iran, warned that Israel had made a "historic mistake" which would bring the it "into direct combat with the Iranians."

Unless Russia can be persuaded to restrain the IRGC and even send some of its militia home, there is a real chance that Israel will get dragged much more deeply into the Syrian conflict.

The next slaughter

Then there is the Assad regime's determination to recover more of Syrian territory, specifically Idlib, the last hold-out of radical Islamist groups but also home to two million Syrians, more than half of them displaced from other parts of the country.

Ali Akbar Velayati, an advisor to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in Damascus last week that the liberation of Idlib is the next target of the "resistance front."

On Sunday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian said Idlib could become the next humanitarian disaster. "Idlib's fate must be settled by a political process," he told Le Journal du Dimanche.

Without a revived peace process, Syria's war will be refueled by all these competing (non-Syrian) interests. More than ever it will be a sandbox for a battle among outside powers.

Slithers of hope

What incentives are there to forestall the next episode of Syria's nightmare? Firstly, Russia doesn't want to be saddled propping up a broken state and hasn't the resources to embark on its reconstruction. Nor does it want to get caught up in a hot war between Israel and Iran.

Assad, at some point, will want to restore sovereignty over the 20% of Syrian territory controlled by the Kurds (with at the moment US support.)

In Moscow, Paris and Washington there is also recognition that a deterioration in Syria will provide ISIS and other jihadi groups with fresh opportunities, and maybe spark another refugee exodus.

But first there has to be a strategy to end the horror. Right now, the US doesn't seem to have one. Democrat Senator Tim Kaine said Sunday: "They haven't laid out a strategy, and military action shouldn't be taken as a one-off."

Whether Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and John Bolton as National Security Adviser bring clarity to US policy remains to be seen. Their previous pronouncements suggest they will want a hard line against both Russia and Iran.

But all roads to Damascus go through Moscow. Can Vladimir Putin be persuaded to prod Assad towards meaningful negotiations and persuade the Iranians to cool it? Might he coax Turkey into leaving northern Syria, and under what conditions? And what might he want in return?

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 293542

Reported Deaths: 6638
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto19601229
Hinds18712386
Harrison16569277
Rankin12637263
Jackson12483219
Lee9671160
Madison9420196
Jones7914146
Forrest7159136
Lauderdale6798226
Lowndes6014137
Lamar585880
Lafayette5716113
Washington5182129
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Panola428392
Pearl River4138128
Warren4122113
Pontotoc408068
Marshall400392
Monroe3981126
Union393673
Neshoba3777167
Lincoln3491100
Hancock341674
Leflore3363118
Sunflower317385
Tate301574
Pike299193
Scott292868
Alcorn290760
Itawamba289072
Yazoo284962
Coahoma276367
Tippah276165
Copiah276057
Simpson272778
Prentiss268858
Leake252171
Marion251578
Wayne251541
Covington248278
Grenada246277
Adams233377
George231145
Newton226352
Winston221375
Jasper212744
Tishomingo211965
Attala206369
Chickasaw200851
Holmes181770
Clay178250
Stone171829
Tallahatchie170039
Clarke168971
Calhoun157128
Smith152431
Yalobusha143536
Greene127233
Walthall123640
Noxubee122829
Perry121434
Montgomery121338
Lawrence119521
Carroll117923
Amite110932
Webster110030
Jefferson Davis101231
Tunica98823
Claiborne97929
Benton93324
Humphreys92427
Kemper89623
Quitman77114
Franklin75619
Choctaw69516
Wilkinson62226
Jefferson61927
Sharkey48817
Issaquena1676
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 491849

Reported Deaths: 9869
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson707641366
Mobile35937724
Madison32307450
Tuscaloosa24024410
Montgomery22502499
Shelby21848214
Baldwin19698277
Lee14926151
Morgan13624251
Calhoun13202285
Etowah13154319
Marshall11243208
Houston10058259
Limestone9348134
Elmore9345182
Cullman8879179
St. Clair8799221
Lauderdale8588210
DeKalb8436174
Talladega7500163
Walker6509251
Jackson6483102
Autauga622890
Blount6084125
Colbert6004118
Coffee5235102
Dale4627106
Russell402930
Franklin398876
Covington3949106
Chilton386298
Escambia377472
Tallapoosa3572141
Clarke343149
Chambers3399108
Dallas3397141
Pike292972
Lawrence282284
Marion281295
Winston246266
Bibb244560
Geneva238870
Marengo233755
Pickens223954
Barbour210651
Hale209068
Fayette199956
Butler195265
Henry182041
Cherokee176438
Monroe166038
Randolph163140
Washington156334
Crenshaw144054
Clay143454
Macon141643
Cleburne137139
Lamar132432
Lowndes130749
Wilcox121425
Bullock116336
Conecuh106523
Perry105427
Sumter98331
Coosa88623
Greene87132
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