National Security & Defense

The Syrian Cease-Fire: Putin’s Trojan Horse

Aftermath of an airstrike in Idlib, Syria, September 10, 2016. (Reuters photo: Ammar Abdullah)
The result will be the steady degradation of anti-Assad rebels — and American prestige.

Equo ne credite, Teucri. Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. (“Do not trust the horse, Trojans! Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks, even bringing gifts.”) — Laocoön, from Virgil’s Aeneid

 

President Obama has accepted another Trojan horse from Vladimir Putin, adding to his collection: the Syrian cease-fire that commences today.

On the outside, the cease-fire offers hope. It represents Putin’s purported belief that civilian suffering in Aleppo is now intolerable. And the Russian president promises that a week from now, assuming the cease-fire is holding, Russia will coordinate with the U.S. to destroy ISIS and Al Qaeda. As I say, the cease-fire deal looks great. But as classical literature and President Obama’s red lines have taught us, looks can be deceiving. And in this case, they are.

This is simply another episode in Putin’s long-running manipulation game. Consider how the Russia-Assad-Iran axis acted this weekend: Re-emphasizing its disdain for humanitarianism, on Saturday, the axis bombed a crowded market in Idlib city. Around 50 civilians were killed. Consider, too, the ongoing deployment of axis forces into the stranglehold of rebel-held eastern Aleppo. Putin and his allies do not seek peace.

As things stand, Putin holds the strategic initiative in Syria. When Putin began his Syria offensive last year, I predicted “a significant northern offensive into Idlib province, perhaps to secure rebel-held areas of the M-5 highway that connects Homs with the northern city of Aleppo.” That’s what has happened. But understanding the axis strategy doesn’t require top-secret intelligence, it simply requires a map. It’s no coincidence that the axis has been pummeling Idlib province. They’re carving out eastern Syria under Assad’s dominion by purifying the Sunni rebellion. So far however, rebel groups in Idlib have held firm. But now, the cease-fire means those rebel offensives against Assad will stall and the axis position will only strengthen.

Expect more evidence of the cease-fire as a Trojan Horse in the coming days. Yesterday, the U.S. warned rebel allies of “dire consequences” should they continue battlefield cooperation with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the rebranded Al-Nusra front, Al-Qaeda syndicate). Moderate rebels sometimes operate in proximity to that group in alliances of convenience. That they do so reflects the mutual hatred of different groups, Salafist-extremists and Islamist-nationalists alike, of Bashar al-Assad — the true source of the conflict. Yet the U.S. warning means the moderate rebels now face a Catch 22. They can abandon operations in proximity to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and sacrifice gains against Assad. Or they can continue fighting in proximity and expect unrestrained Russian air strikes absent U.S. protection. This is Putin’s key: after President Obama and the E.U. react positively to the pretense of peace, the Russians will use massive air power against moderate rebel groups. They’ll do so claiming that they were targeting Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, but that will only be the pretense. This will be a very one-sided cease-fire. By the time that truth becomes clear, it will already be too late. The moderate rebels will have been degraded, and Russia will have scored another hammer blow against U.S. credibility in the Middle East. Remember: degrading our credibility is a focal point of Putin’s overarching strategy to displace American influence around the world.

#related#Anyone who views this cease-fire as a victory for humanitarianism will soon be disappointed, I suspect. As I’ve explained, Vladimir Putin uses civilian suffering as a powerful tool. As with the little boy in Aleppo, the innocent victims of chlorine attacks, starvation, and barrel bombings are means by which Russia can pressure the West to yield and accept Assad as Syria’s perpetual ruler. Borrowing from Mao’s adage that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, Putin uses civilian carnage in Syria to augment his diplomatic leverage. And it is working. Putin has no strategic interest in helping improve the civilian situation in Syria. This deal will not hold because ultimately he does not want it to hold.

I wish this cease-fire was in the interests of America and the Syrian people. But it is not. Some lives may be saved in the next week. But by strengthening Assad against implacable rebel enemies who will never give in, ultimately, this deal will only expand and extend the suffering. To end the war, Assad must go.

— Tom Rogan writes for National Review Online and Opportunity Lives. He was a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. His homepage is www.tomroganthinks.com.

 

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at TRogan@McLaughlin.com

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