The last Syrian ceasefire brokered by the United States died gradually, as both the Assad regime and the rebels (but primarily the Assad regime) ramped up violations until the world woke up one morning and realized the war was back on. The obituaries will record that this current ceasefire, which took hold last week after being haggled out by the United States and Russia, allowed no time for mourning. It abruptly keeled over and the United States is partially to blame.
It began with an American airstrike on Saturday near the Deir al-Zor airport, meant to target the Islamic State. Instead, our bomb careened into a deployment of Syrian soldiers, 62 of whom perished during a period of supposed truce. This put the Obama administration in the awkward position of communicating its regret to the Assad regime, a ghastly dictatorship that’s killed hundreds of thousands of its own people since the war began in 2011. Jolly good work, guys. And then the Russians, being ineluctably Russian, retaliated by bombing a UN aid convoy near Aleppo, killing at least 20. The Americans are now blaming the Russians, the Russians are calling the Americans hypocrites, the aid convoys have been suspended, and a lupine grin is spreading across Bashar al-Assad’s face.
Don’t draw two many parallels between these two incidents: unlike with Putin, the United States confessed its awful error. It was apparently an accident and one that was bound to happen eventually. The Syrian Civil War is a cauldron of Sunnis and Shias, regime soldiers and rebels militants, Iranians, Russians, Turks, and Americans. It’s been difficult enough to crowbar apart the “moderate” rebels, covered by the ceasefire, and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, al-Qaeda’s former franchise in Syria, which is not covered by the ceasefire. The belligerents have all bled together. Even with America’s precision munitions, an accidental bombing was inevitable.
But there’s a greater takeaway here: nobody in Syria trusts the Obama administration. The Russians certainly don’t—one of many reasons they entered the Syrian theater was to stomp on our toes, and even the president admits there are “gaps of trust” with the Kremlin. Assad doesn’t trust us because we spent three years trying to depose him and the Iranians don’t trust us because anti-Americanism is a facet of their civic religion. Cross the battle lines, and the Sunni rebels are cognitively dissonant over Obama, harboring both an anger that he didn’t furnish them with more weapons and a belief in the pervasive conspiracy theory that America helped create ISIS, both of which have created mistrust. Relations are cool with Turkey, which accuses the United States of sheltering the mastermind behind its July coup.
The hawkish rejoinder is that if only Obama had hewed to his plan to vault the rebels over Assad, the United States would have more credibility—they adore that word—in Syria. But not only did he do that, funding two different programs to arm the rebels years after it became obvious they were infected with jihadists, the taking of sides in the Syrian Civil War is what twisted us into our current pretzel. We supported the “moderate” rebels…while opposing al-Qaeda, which became integrated with the “moderate” rebels in many areas…while also destroying ISIS…while maintaining our alliance with Turkey, which wants nothing more than to brunt the Kurds…while arming the Kurds to attack ISIS…and then suddenly realized that maybe we had common cause with the Assadists and Russians after all. We pretended Syria was a dichotomy that could fit neatly in a shoebox; now it’s splintered and none of its disparate factions look to us.
This is a crisis of intervention, not non-intervention. Had we not sullied ourselves by taking sides, we might have more credibility today as a neutral arbiter, and our entreaties for a desperately needed peace might have more heft. Or maybe not—Assad and the rebels might have gamed our ceasefires regardless—but at least now we’re trying to do the right thing, rather than recklessly gambling on one side or the other. Hold up. The Pentagon made known today that it may shuttle more arms to the Syrian Kurds, putatively to be used against ISIS. No doubt Erdogan is reaching for the red phone in Istanbul. Whoever succeeds President Obama will have one hell of a mess on his or her hands.