US-Russian Syria deal has limited shelf life

The Syria deal will crumble in no time in the event of Hillary Clinton’s victory in the presidential elections in November. She will not be satisfied with anything less than a regime change in Russia after the March 2018 presidential elections there. According to Clinton’s advisors, Putin cannot survive as leader if he is dealt a humiliating defeat in Syria or Crimea. So she will go for Russia’s jugular in Syria by stepping up the US military intervention and pressing ahead with hard-line policies to oust President Bashar Al-Assad.

The body language of the media briefing on Friday night at Geneva regarding the US-Russia ceasefire deal over Syria was exceptional in the air of cordiality that both Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov displayed.

John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hold a press conference in Geneva

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands at the conclusion of their press conference following their meeting in Geneva, Switzerland where they discussed the crisis in Syria September 9, 2016.REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

But it had a deceptive air. The best outcome of the ceasefire deal, if it holds till December, could be that Kerry and Lavrov would figure in the consideration zone for a Nobel, having done monumental work to defeat the Islamic State.

Analysts have assembled an impressive array of arguments to explain why this latest Russian-American deal over Syria is also fated to fail. The bulk of the arguments are based on valid ground realities – especially, countless protagonists involved in the war working at across purposes.

But the most compelling factor remains something else, namely, this is a geopolitical war. From its humble origins in 2012 as a variant of Arab Spring, the violence assumed the characteristics of a proxy war, but through the past two-year period following the US-Russia standoff in Eurasia, it transformed as a geopolitical war.

Neither the US nor Russia is in total control of their respective clients on the ground or even their ‘partners’. Meanwhile, their own “systemic confrontation”, as a leading Russian pundit wrote this week, complicates the Syrian settlement.

Ironically, just two days before the US-Russia deal on Syria was announced in Geneva, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter was speaking in Oxford, England, where he listed “Russian aggression and IS barbarism” as the two “robust challenges” facing the US policymakers today.

He accused the Russians of “trying to play by their own rules”, undercutting international order, “intent on undermining its cohesion, questioning its effectiveness, assailing its legitimacy”. Carter’s speech underscored Washington’s grit to contain Russia, no matter what it takes.

Meanwhile, he also made an inter alia reference to the Kerry-Lavrov negotiations regarding Syria. Carter said Russia indulged in doublespeak and its intervention “made the situation in Syria more dangerous, more prolonged, more violent”, and contributed to the “gaps of trust” in US-Russian relations.

Carter said Washington is putting Moscow to “test” through the deal on Syria – “The choice is Russia’s to make and the consequences will be its responsibility”. As for the US, its aim is focused and limited at the moment: “we’re seeking this year to put IS on a path to the lasting defeat it will surely suffer and richly deserves”.

Indeed, there is a congruence of security interests in defeating the IS. But the crux of the matter is that President Barack Obama intends to claim the defeat of the IS as a presidential legacy and to that end selective cooperation with Russia has become unavoidable.

Now, beyond that lies the hazy (and yet fairly predictable) ‘known unknown’ – the growing certainty that Hillary Clinton is coasting to victory in the November election.

Moscow is racing against time. President Vladimir Putin finds himself between the rock and a hard place – between an almost-certain escalation of the Russian-American confrontation in the event of Clinton’s victory and selective cooperation that may be possible if Donald Trump wins.

That explains the raison d’etre of the Syria deal on Friday, from the Russian perspective. Moscow is eager to show some progress on Syria by January next year. The Kremlin took a strategic decision to go ahead with the negotiations with Kerry despite the latest (unwarranted) provocations by Washington – imposition of further sanctions against Russia and nomination of a former CENTCOM chief as military advisor to the Ukraine government.

The Kremlin assesses that while it is within the realm of possibility to inflict a mortal blow on the IS if the Russian and American militaries act purposively in coordination, it is also expedient politically to continue to cover as much work as possible with the Obama presidency, given the huge uncertainties of what lies beyond January next year.

Is it realistic on Moscow’s part to hope that the decisions on the Russia policies of the next US administration will depend on the progress that Moscow achieves with the Obama administration over Syria through coming four months?

The Syria deal will crumble in no time in the event of a Clinton victory in November. That’s so very obvious. Clinton makes no bones about her intentions toward Russia (and Putin). She will not be satisfied with anything less than regime change there. The March 2018 presidential election in Russia is a crucial deadline for Clinton to get Russian foreign-policy back on a pro-West track.

The bottom line is, Clinton represents the vast majority of opinion within the US establishment and foreign-policy elites who see Moscow (Putin) as posing a systemic challenge to the US-led international order. They demand Russia’s politico-military containment so as to create conditions to change the regime.

If Obama successfully could be dismissive about Mitt Romney’s characterization of Russia as America’s number one geopolitical threat, that thesis today, four years down the lane, is mainstream opinion in Washington.

Clinton’s foreign policy advisors are all famous for holding ‘hawkish’ views on Russia – Jake Sullivan, Laura Rosenberger, Madeline Albright, Strobe Talbott, Leon Panetta, Michele Flournoy, Michael McFoul, Phil Gordon, Julie Smith and so on.

Curiously, it also happens to be a ‘bipartisan’ team – conceivably, it could even have had a place for Ash Carter.

One thing that is often overlooked is that in the overall co-relation of forces today, a regime change in Moscow also happens to be the prerequisite for the US to reboot its sagging re-balance in Asia. The US simply gets overstretched, otherwise – grappling with confrontations in Eurasia, Middle East and South China Sea simultaneously. That was the salience of the recent G20 and ASEAN summits, too.

Besides, the personal chemistry between Clinton and Putin never really recovered after her famous comparison of the Russian leader to Hitler. All things taken into account, therefore, the ‘known unknown’ pretty much narrows down to the theatre that Clinton may choose in the near future to double down on Putin.

The strong likelihood is that Clinton will go for Russia’s jugular vein in Syria. Clinton will step up the US military intervention and press ahead with hard-line policies to oust President Bashar Al-Assad. Flashpoints are bound to arise in Russian-American relations in a near future, including possible military confrontation.

In the estimation of the ‘Russia hands’ who advise Clinton, Putin cannot survive in the Byazantine corridors of Kremlin if he is dealt a humiliating defeat in Crimea or Syria. The odds are stacked against a civil war in Ukraine, since Europe would get sucked into it, putting intolerable strains on the continent’s unity and integration, ruining its economies and possibly triggering political upheavals.

Therefore, if there is an eerie silence in the capitals of the Muslim Middle East regarding Friday’s US-Russia deal on Syria, it is not only because of Eid celebrations, but also their quiet anticipation that any deal that Obama authorizes with the Russians at this point in time can only have limited shelf life.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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