The pros and cons of Kerry's Syria deal
By Peter Apps <http://www.reuters.com/journalists/peter-apps>
The landmark deal last week between Secretary of State John Kerry and
his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov is, in many ways, a major
breakthrough. It may well save lives. Against the backdrop of what has
been the worst war of the 21st century, that’s a prize worth seizing.
The problem: The effects will be strictly limited. The agreement is
really several significant, but limited, tactical deals – on aid, on
local ceasefires and on coordination against certain Islamist groups
that both Washington and Moscow don’t want to see as part of the
long-term future of Syria.
That’s something, to be sure.
To get that deal, however, Kerry and Lavrov appear to have deliberately
avoided the toughest issues. Most crucial, the ultimate fate of Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad was off the table. That omission has likely
been noticed in Damascus, Aleppo and the various regional capitals that
must also help decide the conflict.
It’s hardly surprising the United States and Russia can’t agree. Not
least because there is still little to no agreement in Washington on
exactly what the United States should be doing. Nor are European
capitals – many increasingly worried about the political implications of
the growing flow of refugees in their countries – all singing from the
same song book. Some would like the war over at any cost. Others are
still looking for specific outcomes.
*More from Reuters*
Kerry defends Syria deal with Russia, says Obama backs plan
Aid for Syria waits on Turkish border as warring sides bicker
Syria truce largely holds as aid preparations begin
In the United States, for example, some in the State Department have
take deliberate military action against the forces supporting the Assad
regime. It’s not that the department necessarily believes that Assad can
be defeated. But they believe his actions over the last five years –
including chemical attacks in the last month or so – demand a more
Others, including a range of liberal and neoconservative voices
that approach as unrealistic. Further degrading the government’s ability
to maintain control, they insist, only worsens an already grim situation
and makes long-term rebuilding in Syria even harder – whether under a
new government or Assad.
Washington is unlikely to resolve this issue before the presidential
election in November. Whoever wins will have to come up with a strategy
that factors in what happens in Syria until then – including where
things stand militarily, particularly in Aleppo.
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That’s where the joint U.S.-Russian coordination against Islamist groups
will likely have real impact. It makes sense on many levels. First, most
of the international and regional powers – as well as many local forces
– are effectively on the same side. They want Islamic State gone –
although what will replace it is obviously a more contentious issue.
If Russian, U.S. and other aircraft are operating in the same area, it’s
also important to establish more rigorous systems to stop inadvertent
confrontation. So far, Moscow and Washington have been relatively
effective here, even as Syria’s Air Force has occasionally pushed its
luck by conducting strikes near U.S. special operations forces working
with moderate rebels.
The other problem is that there’s a lot more to the Syria war than the
Washington-Russia face-off. Both Iran, which is supporting Assad, and
Sunni powers that support the opposition have their own views. With
Turkey now sending military forces into Syria, Ankara, in particular, is
also shaping the conflict in ways that go beyond the immediate
priorities of Kerry, Lavrov, Obama and Putin.
Since Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan put down
coup attempt in July, he clearly does not see himself beholden to any
foreign power when it comes to determining policy. After Islamic State’s
recent attacks within Turkey, Ankara clearly wants to push back against
the group at least as much as anyone in Washington. But it also wants to
limit the capabilities of Syrian Kurds to call the shots.
Given that Kurdish forces have often been Washington’s most successful
proxies, that’s inevitably messy. Turkish plans to carve out “safe
areas” for refugees, however, may well find it significant support in
One day, the Syria war will probably come down to a negotiated
international agreement. The Kerry-Lavrov deal may well be one of the
stepping stones towards that. But in some ways, it just opens the door
to the next chapter in the conflict.
About the Author
Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international
affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and
executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a
non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New
York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for
Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since
2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour
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