If there is any metric by which to judge the president’s Russia policy, it is Syria. The proxy war between Russian allies and American ones has heated up enough to spike searches for “World War III” in Google. When Washington and Moscow rattle sabers in Syria, the world pays attention.
Now the United States and Russia have agreed to a cease-fire in southwestern Syria along the Jordanian border that appears, at least as of Sunday, to be holding. According to Reuters, “calm was prevailing” in the ceasefire zone.
Syrian cease-fires have a poor track record. Kofi Annan, the former UN chief, tried to broker a deal in 2012 to considerable hope and fanfare. Instead, Bashar al-Assad, the besieged president, escalated the war. Several other attempts followed by the Arab League, the UN, and regional actors. None of them got much further than local, temporary halts to the fighting. Factions would routinely use them as cover to rearm for further attacks.
The Russo-American deal covers Deraa, the city where the uprising began in 2011, and much of the Syrian-Jordanian border near Israel’s strategic Golan Heights, which Syria still claims and which Israel continues to occupy since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
Kremlin-aligned Sputnik hailed the deal as a step forward in anti-terror cooperation. Bashar al-Assad and Putin have long held that all rebel factions in Syria are terrorists, regardless of their ideology, yet the deal explicitly covers anti-Assad factions long supported by America and Jordan.
However, the agreement doesn’t cover the eastern or northern frontiers, where most of the heaviest fighting has been, nor the critical Tanf frontier on the Iraqi-Syrian border, where U.S. forces have been building up and training rebels to attack the Islamic State, or ISIS, to the north. There, Iranian and Assadist forces have twice tried to secure Tanf and have twice been struck by American bombers.
Meanwhile, in Raqqa, American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are wearing down the last fighters of ISIS in the caliphate’s self-proclaimed capital city. They too are not covered by the deal. U.S. jets shot down an Assadist fighter that attacked SDF forces near Raqqa in June.
There’s also the problem of northern Syria’s Idlib province, where a host of different anti-Assadist rebel groups retreated after their defeat in Aleppo last year. The biggest faction, Jabhat al-Nusra, is an al-Qaeda affiliate. Yet Turkey, America’s NATO ally, supports some of the factions there and has even invaded Syria to keep supply lines open and prevent the Kurds from establishing a large enclave on its border.
While the deal was designed to be local, the tripwires of overlapping American and Russian interests makes it a fraught one. While Trump’s Syria policy seems limited to destroying the Islamic State, Putin appears to want to restore Assad to the entire country, something that would mean clashing with Turkish and American allies in the north. Moreover, Trump seems to have allowed his battlefield commanders more leeway for running the war in Syria in stark contrast to Obama’s approach of more restraint. These commanders appear to have concluded that Assadist forces are in the way of destroying ISIS.
Syrian cease-fires have shredded the credibility of others before. Kofi Annan used up his remaining political capital in his failed 2012 deal, and the Arab League’s own attempt collapsed what remained of that institution’s authority. While Trump supporters on Twitter were celebrating the deal as proof that their commander-in-chief could accomplish the big deal making that he promised, the collapse of said deal would result in a death blow to Trump’s Russian reset and the president’s credibility as a peace broker.
World opinion of America has already collapsed since Trump’s election. Should the president fail in Syria, it might drive those numbers even lower.
[Featured Image by Evan Vucci/AP Photo]