Despite a ceasefire that led to unprecedented violence by the two major intervening powers in Syria, there is still hope for that suffering country in the renewed discussions between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, but only if their respective militaries are able to give peace a chance.
Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying for years to build trust with Russia, to find some common ground on which the two countries can work together to solve some of the world’s most vexing problems. Those efforts were severely undercut by the U.S. coalition’s bombing of the Syrian military. Although the U.S. apologized and described the airstrikes as accidental, they fed President Vladimir Putin’s narrative that the U.S. is untrustworthy, and they likely led to Russia’s destruction of the humanitarian aid convoy in Syria.
The Americans had said they wanted aid to get to the starving Syrians in Aleppo, and the Russians made sure the Americans would not get their way.
President Barack Obama has vowed consistently not to target President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Yet, Obama’s air command did just that. It’s easy to see how killing 62 members of Syria’s military and wounding more than 100 would anger the Russians, who had been flying military missions in support of Assad.
The nearly hour-long bombing error made the Russians look gullible, weak and stupid, especially after their air force had just agreed to work with the U.S. military, sharing intelligence and coordinating attacks on Islamic State and al Nusra in Syria after a ceasefire took hold.
The peevish Putin does not like to be taken for a chump. In his worried world, the Americans might have been planning to take out even more of Assad’s troops, or, worse, his. He would have to teach them a lesson; hit them where it would hurt. The Americans had said they wanted aid to get to the starving Syrians in Aleppo, and the Russians made sure the Americans would not get their way. Russia has denied bombing the Arab Red Crescent aid convoy, killing approximately 21 people, but the Americans believe otherwise. They can argue over who did what to whom. The result remains the same: No one got what they wanted or needed this month in Syria.
It’s hard to imagine that U.S.-Russia relations could reach a lower point in Syria, especially now that Russia’s only aircraft carrier is en route to the Mediterranean. But as anyone who has been to war knows, it can always get worse.
John Kerry is Syria’s best and fastest hope for peace. Like it or not, so is Vladimir Putin.
Time is running out for the Obama administration to settle Syria. By the end of January, he will be out of office and a new president will have named a new Secretary of State. John Kerry is Syria’s best and fastest hope for peace. Like it or not, so is Vladimir Putin. Russia’s economy is sputtering under the weight of sanctions, and the country does not have the deep pockets needed to continue to prop up the Assad regime.
Everyone must try again. Accept Kerry’s proposal to ground all aircraft flying in key areas, especially those over the aid routes, and approve Russia’s suggestion of a three-day pause in fighting to get the ceasefire back on course. Most important, the military commanders have to back off, be careful not to make costly mistakes, and, if mistakes are made, not take retribution. Revenge merely causes more suffering, which is what needs to stop in Syria.