Convoys carrying food and medicine rolled into five besieged Syrian cities on Wednesday in hopes of saving starving and sick citizens caught in the country’s endless violence. Hopefully, some Syrians will be saved.
But unless some of the nations opposed to the brutal regime of Bashar Assad decisively change the military calculus, more are likely to die as Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, consolidates or expands recent gains.
The aid is the result of diplomatic efforts led by Secretary of State John Kerry, whose dogged determination to negotiate a settlement has been admirable, albeit ineffective. The tentative deal is supposed to allow for humanitarian relief, followed by a “cessation of hostilities” (except against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and another terrorist group, al-Nusra). Long-delayed U.N. peace talks are then supposed to finally commence. While well-intentioned, there’s understandable skepticism. First, Assad and his Russian and Iranian enablers have little incentive to cease hostilities. They’re winning, after all. No, not a total victory — and no, not against ISIL — but against the more moderate rebel factions who may soon lose Aleppo and other key Syrian cities.
Russia intervened under the guise of fighting ISIL. But most airstrikes have targeted anti-Assad rebels (and, allegedly, civilians), not the nihilistic terrorists. Sure, Russia may eventually stop the strikes, at least temporarily. But not until there is at least a Syrian rump state that can sustain the homicidal Assad regime. And if the resulting refugee exodus further destabilizes Europe, that achieves another Putin objective.
Those motivated to help the rebels all seem to find reasons not to.
Gulf allies have signaled they’re willing to intervene more forcefully on behalf of their Sunni brethren, but are seemingly awaiting a deeper U.S. commitment. President Obama and the American people, however, show no inclination to do so, particularly as conflicts endure in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ramping up would increase the possibility of U.S.-Russian conflict, which could have catastrophic consequences. And Turkey is currently more at war with Kurds, some of whom have been the most effective anti-ISIL fighters.
“To the extent we can save lives, the least we can do is to continue talking,” Frederic C. Hof, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former ambassador for the transition in Syria, told an editorial writer. “But the essential problem is that for the American strategy to work, it depends entirely on the goodwill of Vladimir Putin, the supreme leader of Iran and Bashar Assad. All Kerry’s got here is a collection of talking points, and a certain logic: He’s trying to get them to relax the situation, move into a period of negotiation, create a sort of national-unity transitional governing mechanism that puts Assad to the side so the country can go against ISIL. It’s a good argument, an elegant argument, but there’s nothing backing it up.”
Ideally, regional powers will eventually back it up. But Kerry should press on, at least to save those innocent Syrians who have become victims of a collective global failure.