The US-Russian plan, approved by the UN Security Council as the lever for activating a political process towards ending the five-year Syrian war, can only go so far towards its objectives. The process is not capable of halting the fighting or removing Bashar Assad from power; just the reverse: progress in the talks is heavily dependent on the state of play on the battlefields of the north while the Syrian dictator’s ouster is a fading issue.
The limitations and obstacles facing the UN-endorsed US-Russian plan are summed up here by debkafile’s analysts:
1. The understanding reached by the Obama administration and the Kremlin in the past month was first conceived as a stopgap measure. It was never intended to bring the calamitous Syrian war to an end or remove Assad, but rather to provide a pretext to account for the expansion of Russia’s ground operation and gloss over America’s military deficiencies in the Syrian conflict. Taking it as carte blanche from Washington, President Vladimir Putin felt able to announce Saturday, Dec. 19, that “the Russian armed forces have not employed all of their capability in Syria and may use more military means there if necessary.”
2. President Barack Obama has stopped calling for Assad’s removal as the condition for ending the war and is silent on the expanding Russian military intervention. Obama and Putin have in fact developed a working arrangement whereby Putin goes ahead with military operations and Obama backs him up..
3. Almost unnoticed, on Dec. 17, the day before the Security Council passed its resolution for Syria, all the 12 US warplanes that were deployed a month earlier at the Turkish air base of Incirlik for air strikes in Syria were evacuated. This happened at around the same time as Russia deployed to Syria its Buk-M2-SA-17 Grizzly antiaircraft missile systems. The presence of this system would have endangered American pilots had US air strikes over Syria not been halted. The upshot of the two evidently coordinated moves was the US withdrawal of most of its military resources for striking the Islamic State forces in Syria and the handover of the arena to the Russian army and air force.
4. In another related development, Friday, Dec. 18 the German intelligence service, BND, leaked news that it had renewed its contacts with the Assad regime’s intelligence services and German agents were now visiting Damascus regularly. The import of this change is that Berlin no longer relies on US intelligence briefings from Syria and, rather than turn to Moscow, it prefers to tap its own sources in the Syrian capital.
5. Washington and Moscow are still far apart on the shape of the transitional government mandated by the Security Council resolution
The Obama administration wants Assad to hand presidential powers over the military and of all security-related and intelligence bodies to the transitional government, which is to be charged with calling general and presidential elections from which Assad will be barred.
Putin won’t hear of this process. He insists on a transitional government being put in place and proving it can function before embarking on any discussion of its powers and areas of authority.
The two presidents agree that the transition will need at least two years, overlapping the Obama presidency by about a year and dropping the issue in the lap of his successor in the White House.
6. The US and Russia don’t see to eye to eye either on which Syrian opposition organizations should be represented in the transitional government and which portfolios to assign them. On this question, both Washington and Moscow are at odds with the Persian Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, which back some of the organizations labeled as terrorist by Moscow.
7. But it is abundantly clear that the Obama administration is ready to wash its hands of the Syrian rebel movement and most of all, abandon Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to give the Russians an open remit.
On Saturday, Dec. 19, Putin turned the screw again on Erdogan when he said he had no problem with the Turkish people, adding, “As for the current Turkish leadership, nothing is eternal.”
In support of Moscow, Obama meanwhile leaned hard on the Turkish president in a telephone conversation, to remove Turkish forces from northern Iraq. Ankara responded that Putin’s comment was not worth a response and denied hearing of any such US request.
Ankara may be feigning ignorance but it must realize by now that Moscow and Washington have joined forces to pus the Turkish military out of any involvement in northern Syria and Iraq.
8. This US-Russia collaboration against Turkey is having a dramatic effect on the war in northern Syria along the Turkish border. debkafile’s military and intelligence sources report it opened the door to the secret deal between Washington and Moscow to divide the areas of influence in northern Syria between them – essentially assigning the Kurdish enclaves north of the Euphrates river and bordering on Iraq to American influence (see map), and the areas west of the Euphrates up to the Mediterranean to Russian control. This deal (first revealed by DEBKA Weekly 688 on Dec. 4) effectively squeezes Turkey out of any role in the Syrian conflict.
9. The ongoing battles in northern Syria near the Turkish border will have a greater impact in shaping the future of Syria and its unending conflict than any UN resolution. Participating in the fighting at present is a very big mixed cast: Russia, the Kurdish YPG militia, most of the important rebel groups, including radical Sunni organizations tied to Al Qaeda, such as the Nusra Front and Ahram al-Sham, Iran and Shiite Hizballah, and the Islamic State.
It is only when one of these forces gains the upper hand in this free-for-all, that there will be progress toward a political solution on ending the war.