Russians raise stakes in Syria

Moscow’s military action has changed the shape of a conflict that had been stalemated for years

For months now the U.S. has insisted there is no military solution to the Syrian civil war, only a political accord between President Bashar Al-Assad and the fractured, divided opposition groups that have been trying to topple him.

But after days of intense bombing that could soon put the critical city of Aleppo back into the hands of Mr. Assad’s forces, the Russians may be proving the U.S. wrong. There may be a military solution, one senior U.S. official conceded on Wednesday, “just not our solution”, but that of President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

That is what Secretary of State John Kerry faces as he enters a critical negotiation over a ceasefire and the creation of a “humanitarian corridor” to relieve starving Syrians besieged in more than a dozen cities, most by Mr. Assad’s forces.

The Russian military action has changed the shape of a conflict that had effectively been stalemated for years. Suddenly, Mr. Assad and his allies have momentum, and the U.S.-backed rebels are on the run.

Assad has the upper hand

If a ceasefire is negotiated here, it will probably come at a moment Mr. Assad holds more territory, and more sway, than since the outbreak of the uprisings in 2011.

Mr. Kerry enters the negotiations with very little leverage: The Russians have cut off many of the pathways the CIA has been using for a not-very-secret effort to arm rebel groups, according to several current and former officials. Mr. Kerry’s supporters inside the administration say he has been increasingly frustrated by the low level of U.S. military activity, which he views as essential to bolstering his negotiation effort.

Publicly, Mr. Kerry is circumspect about his dilemma. “We are all very, very aware of how critical this moment is,” he said on Tuesday.

His colleagues in the administration, however, fear that a three-month-long effort to begin the political process is near collapse. If it fails, it will force Kerry and President Barack Obama, once again, to consider their Plan B: a far larger military effort, directed at Mr. Assad.

But that is exactly the kind of conflict that Mr. Obama has spent five years trying to avoid, especially when any ground campaign would rely on forces led by a fractious group of opposition leaders that he distrusts.

Without a political solution or a stepped-up military effort, the U.S. is not only left with little influence over the course of the Syrian civil war, but without a viable strategy to bring all of the warring parties together to fight the Islamic State.

An open breach erupted with the Turks, who charge that the U.S. is empowering the Kurds, with whom Turkey believes it is in an existential struggle. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s President, denounced Washington for failing to declare a Syrian Kurdish rebel group as a terrorist organisation. “Are you on our side or the side of the terrorist PYD and PKK organizations?” Mr. Erdogan said in an address to provincial officials in the Turkish capital, Ankara, referring to U.S. support for members Kurdish rebels in their fight against the Islamic State (IS).

At the core of the U.S. strategic dilemma is that the Russian military adventure has been surprisingly effective in helping Mr. Assad reclaim the central cities he needs to hold power, at least in a rump-state version of Syria. — New York Times News Service

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