Following Russia standoff, US needs a Plan B in Syria
The White House should seriously revisit its plans to arm the Syrian rebels and coordinate pressure with regional allies
The US suspension of bilateral contacts with Russia yesterday over the ceasefire talks in Syria should not come as a surprise to anyone and is rather an admission of failure that the September 10 agreement has all but collapsed against the carnage and the war crimes taking place in Aleppo.
However, the move will only make a difference if Washington exercises leverage and has an actual plan B in Syria. As Russia escalates militarily and deploys an anti-missile system to boost the Assad regime, the White House should seriously revisit its plans to arm the Syrian rebels and coordinate pressure with regional allies.
Washington underestimated Russia
With the suspension announcement coming from John Kerry himself, the last US senior official giving Moscow the benefit of the doubt on Syria, Washington’s message was an acknowledgement that the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) is in a shambles, and it is time to stop pretending that there was or will be anytime soon another ceasefire.
Just two weeks ago, even as the ceasefire was collapsing, Kerry reportedly told Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef that “Russia has lost control over Assad” in an attempt to absolve Moscow (and himself) from the responsibility of failure, and continue to wishfully think that Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin might be on different pages in Syria. This is a delusional strategy heard often in Washington ever since Russia intervened militarily in Syria one year ago.
Washington has continuously underestimated Russia’s determination to help Assad win even if it means turning Aleppo or Idlib or Douma to another GroznyJoyce Karam
On the ground, Russia and the Assad regime seem to be together in dropping bunker busters at hospitals, schools and bakeries in Aleppo, and seeking an outright military victory for Moscow’s oldest ally in the Middle East.
While implementing the Kerry-Lavrov deal was a long shot for lacking an enforcement mechanism, Washington has continuously underestimated Russia’s determination to help Assad win even if it means turning Aleppo or Idlib or Douma to another Grozny. Such endgame that preserves Russia’s security interests and the regime structure in Syria, has always been Putin’s priority, not a joint counterterrorism center with the US military or a UN brokered settlement.
A US plan B?
Without a plan B that would seek leverage against Russia and make it rethink its calculus in Syria, the suspension of the CoH talks will remain meaningless.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported on a renewed debate on whether the White House should “authorize the Central Intelligence Agency and its partners in the region to deliver weapons systems that would enable CIA-vetted rebel units to strike Syrian and Russian artillery positions from longer distances.”
The newspaper said the administration is still ruling out “delivering so-called man-portable air-defense systems, known as Manpads, to the rebels” but “is considering arming them with antiaircraft systems that are less mobile and would pose less of a proliferation risk.”
CBS has also reported that the White House will consider sanctions against Russia & other options in ‘days ahead’ following the suspension.
In that same context, both Obama and US Vice President Joe Biden have made calls last week to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and to the Qatari, and Kuwaiti leadership to discuss Syria. The Saudi Crown Prince also held extensive meetings in Turkey that addressed the situation in Aleppo.
While the Obama administration has been extremely reluctant in pursuing any kind of escalation in Syria, the situation in Aleppo with the use of barrel bombs, cluster munitions in residential areas and against a besieged population accounts to war crimes.
Standing by as neighborhoods are razed, and children are dug out of the rubble is not only a slap in the face of humanity but also a recipe that will feed extremism. The children of East Aleppo are waiting in line for their death sentence, a generation that for five years has lived through airstrikes, sieges and expects capital punishment.
The suspension of US-Russia talks is a step in the right direction but shall remain hollow unless it attaches a heavy price tag on the bombardment of hospitals and raining phosphorous munitions over Syria.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam