A sliver of hope in the Syrian cease-fire

The American military may enjoy the blank check given to them by the Trump Administration, but they may come to regret it when he shifts all of the blame onto their shoulders the moment something goes wrong. 

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After meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit on July 7th, Donald Trump could point to a ceasefire in south eastern Syria as a tangible result of their more than 2 hour discussion. The resulting headlines mostly failed to mention this small breakthrough, preferring to instead concentrate on issues of style.

Even the venerable Nation magazine, with its proud history of anti-war advocacy and left politics, ran a piece by Joan Walsh, formerly of the predictably centrist Salon.com, under the title. “The Much-Hyped First Trump-Putin Meeting Was a Farce”, in which she buried news of it in a single sentence near the end, downplaying the cease-fire agreement as irrelevant due to the fact that previous ones in the multi-sided conflict have all eventually failed.

In making her argument, Walsh declined to mention that the U.S. bears some responsibility for these failed cease fires, especially a major one negotiated in mid-September of 2016 by then Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. The negotiated settlement, which was larger in scope than the current one, was the outcome of an arduous process many months in the making. It lasted less than a week as a direct result of American military actions.

In what could have been seen as an act of treason by whoever in the chain of command ordered it, but was instead passed off as an accident, the United States ended this ceasefire when they bombed a Syrian Arab Army position near the small city of Deir Ezzor, situated in the east of the country along the Euphrates river, killing 62 Syrian soldiers deployed there to fight the so-called Islamic State.

Besides, downplaying the current agreement only makes sense if one believes that avoiding the risk of a wider war, along with the lives saved by these cease fires, are unimportant and that diplomacy should not only show immediate but also permanent results. Commentators like Walsh seem to care more about scoring political points for their side than being consistent in terms of their principles, a trait many of them share with their opponents further to the right.

The limited ceasefire, which came into force on Sunday, July 9th, was much more newsworthy than trying to find meaning in a handshake, deciding who had ‘won’ the encounter or remaining incredulous when President Putin denied the still unproven allegations of Russian manipulation of the 2016 U.S. election. Accusations that have now widened to include the U.S. President’s son in an endless drama that has been very good for some corporate Democrats in Congress and for cable news ratings but little else.

A particular tell in Walsh’s Nation piece was her initial claim, later corrected, that all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies were unanimous in finding Russia guilty of election interference in an Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) report earlier this year. This talking point was conclusively de-bunked by the former Director of National Intelligence himself, James Clapper, when he testified before the Senate in May, but continues to be presented as fact in many mainstream sources.

In his appearance, Clapper explained that it was hand picked analysts from just three agencies (FBI, CIA, NSA), along with his own office, who produced the assessment in both its public and slightly longer classified form. The public version concentrated more on the reporting of Russian broadcaster RT during Occupy Wallstreet, almost six years before the election, than it did on the allegations of the hacking of the DNC attributed to Russian intelligence.

As Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov told the press after the meeting, “U.S. President Donald Trump (and I’m sure either he or Secretary of State Tillerson would say this themselves) said that this campaign has acquired a rather strange character because these accusations have been raised for so many months, despite no evidence being put forward.”

In the meantime, hardly reported on at all in major English language media, the United States military and its Coalition allies including Canada, France, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have ramped up operations in Syria and Iraq and civilian casualties have been steadily mounting, especially in the latter country, where the battle for Mosul has leveled some parts of that ancient city.

These increasing casualty rates are also due, at least in part, to a change in procedures made at the end of the Obama administration. The new rules allow Iraqi forces to call in air-strikes from the nearest Coalition member rather than having these strikes approved centrally by all members.

As explained by Belkie Wille of Human Rights Watch (HRW), the loosened targeting procedures, “Allowed for a quicker response time, but that also makes for more mistakes.”

Syrian regime change off the table?

It’s important to remember that the latest ceasefire came just a few weeks after the downing of a Syrian airforce plane for what U.S. officials said was bombing too close to NATO allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) during a sortie against ISIS fighters in their ‘capital’, Raqqa.

Russia then took a series of measures in reply to the shoot down, including suspending a hot-line used by the two countries to report air operations in order to avoid the chance of a collision in the country’s somewhat crowded airspace.

The risk of an accidental or even an intentional escalation by one or more of the many parties involved in the conflict was once again clear, but the American media and all of the President’s erstwhile opponents stood united in their support of the military’s clearly illegal action, just as they had when the President, before any investigation had taken place, declared the Syrian government guilty of a presumed sarin gas attack on February 6th and had the U.S. Navy illegally fire 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air-base in reply.

Some pundits even claimed that these air-strikes made Trump appear more ‘presidential’ and he was given several days of relatively good press, something the notoriously thin-skinned Chief Executive is unlikely to forget.

At this point, it’s still up in the air whether the President has fully turned his back on one of his few sensible campaign promises: not to get bogged down in further Middle Eastern interventions. It may very well be that the current fight against Daesh is merely a prelude to either the break up of Syria itself or a regime change operation targeting the secular government in Damascus, a policy that many hawks in Washington and other Western capitals are still calling for.

Speaking to CNN about the deployment of  High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), truck based missiles with a range of 300 km (186.4 miles), from Jordan to the desert outpost of al-Tanf prior to the ceasefire, U.S. Col. Ryan Dillon made it clear that they weren’t brought in for the fight against ISIS, “We have increased our presence and our footprint and prepared for any threat that is presented by the pro-regime forces.”

Another costly failure in Syria?

The cease-fire was practically a gift from the Russian president, considering the precarious position American forces and their Coalition allies found themselves as a direct result of their larger strategy of cutting off a highway that would allow Iran unfettered access to both Syria and its Lebanese allies in Hezbollah. The gambit in the almost empty garrison town of al-Tanf failed to achieve its objective of keeping the Syrian government and its allies from reaching the Iraqi and Jordanian borders. They managed this feat anyway, using alternate routes and essentially bottled in the Coalition forces engaged in training newly vetted rebel groups who now find themselves surrounded by the Syrian Arab Army and the various militias supporting it.

It also demonstrates the somewhat schizophrenic policy being undertaken by the United States and its allies in the region. While U.S. forces were nominally working with Iranian backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs) in Iraq, they were desperate to keep these same forces fighting in Syria from reaching the Iraqi border.

As reported by Daniel Lazare, it also wasn’t enough to cut off  the Islamic Republic of Iran’s access to its allies, as always, a profit must be made, “Beyond cutting off the road’s northern branch, the U.S. floated plans to convert the southern route into a modern U.S.-style toll road complete with service stations rest stops and cafes. The roadway would then be under the control of a military-linked security firm, the Reston, Virginia -based Constellis, which happens to be the owner of Academi, formerly known as Blackwater…”

To say that the current administration’s foreign policy has been a mess is an understatement, with the President often contradicting his subordinates, especially his U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who seems to be pursuing a typically neo-conservative foreign policy on her own, routinely grandstanding in regards to Russia, Iran and Syria in a way that’s not much different from her predecessor, Samantha Power.

The seeming policy of the Trump Administration to dismantle the government by refusing to fill important posts, which admittedly could also be attributed to simple incompetence, has been ruinous for American diplomacy. The State Department still lacks candidates for vital deputy positions and ambassadors to major allies and rivals alike, allowing the U.S. military to take over an ever larger slice of America’s foreign policy, especially in more troubled regions of the world from Central America to the Korean peninsula and many points in between.

What really makes President Trump dangerous is almost the same as what made George W. Bush dangerous: a lack of of curiosity about the world and a willingness, shared by both of the United States’ major political parties, to bend to the dictates of big capital, of which military contractors are some of the biggest. The only thing unprecedented about the current President is his often bullying tone and seeming addiction to social media, both of which are ridiculous and should be mocked accordingly.

Although the American military has been emboldened by the seeming blank check given to them by the Trump Administration, they may come to regret it when he shifts all of the blame onto their shoulders the moment something goes wrong.

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