This article titled “Assad’s brutal strategy survives regardless of Trump’s victory tweet” was written by Patrick Wintour Diplomatic Editor, for theguardian.com on Sunday 15th April 2018 18.01 Asia/Kolkata
“Mission Accomplished!” tweeted Donald Trump, in an ill-chosen echo of George W Bush’s hubristic declaration of victory in the Iraq war. “Mission Accomplished?” ran the sceptical headline of the Gulf News, the Dubai-based newspaper, in a reflection of the mood across the Arab world at the modest scale of the western strikes delivered on Bashar al-Assad’s war machine.
Before the strikes, leading human rights campaigners in the Syrian opposition such as Fadel Abdul Ghany had said they wanted to see the west attack the entire Syrian air force, including all its airfields. His hopes were dashed.
“If this is it, Assad should be relieved,” said Randa Slim rom the Washington-based thinktank the Middle East Institute. The Syrian government sent out a video of Assad turning up for work in the presidential palace as normal. The not-very-subliminal message was “it’s business as usual”.
The UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has suggested an extra benefit of the strikes might be that they encourage Vladimir Putin to bring Assad to the negotiating table. But it is hard to identify the strategic factors likely to change that would make negotiations any more likely to succeed, and in particular make Russia any more likely to put pressure on Assad to make concessions.
Greater US engagement does not appear to be one of them. Buried in Trump’s statement announcing the strikes was a rejection of US ambition and engagement. “No amount of American blood or treasure can produce lasting peace and security in the Middle East. It’s a troubled place,” he said. Trump promised to “try to make it better”, but he repeated: “It is a troubled place.”
The one Trump administration speech setting out a long-term strategy for Syria, delivered by Rex Tillerson, has been removed from US state department website. The US went out of its way not to threaten Russian positions inside Syria, knowing to do so would risk a wider conflagration, and risk Russia’s self-appointed position as the power broker in Syria.
It largely leaves the British Foreign Office starting again to try to work out what Trump intends to do in Syria, and whether the remaining 2,000 US troops deployed there against Islamic State will remain as a bargaining chip, or instead have been firmly put in the departure lounge by Trump.
Theresa May, a prime minister who, beset by Brexit, has so far shown little interest in Syria save as a counter-terrorism issue, has repeatedly stressed British involvement had nothing to do with regime change or the civil war.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has invested more heavily in the region, recently inviting to the Elysée Kurdish leaders under assault from Turkey in northern Syria. But he is clear nothing better than Assad is on offer in Syria. Indeed, some have argued Macron’s red line on chemical weapons had acted as a smokescreen for his absence of a wider strategic policy. He had hoped Assad would never overstep the line.
“Just as interesting is what the strikes were not,” said Richard Haass, president of the the New York-based thinktank the Council on Foreign Relations. “They were not intended to unseat the Assad regime or directly protect the Syrian people. Although President Trump expressed his disappointment with Russian and Iranian support for Assad, the strikes took care not to engage them directly.”
The agenda of the Geneva peace process remains in the same place as it was before the strikes – a universal acceptance amongst the interlocutors that the Assad regime remains in power but his delegation refusing to engage on the potential constitutional constraints on which the regime operates, both in a transition and thereafter, the degree of federalism and the possibility of UN-supervised elections.
A draft UN resolution from western powers, due to be discussed at the security council on Monday, calls on all sides to negotiate, but the Syrian government delegation to Geneva refuses to discuss these issues and will feel under no new pressure to engage. Indeed, Russia has said the attacks would damage Geneva. A Russian-led process of setting up a new committee to draw up a postwar constitution for Syria is making snail-like progress.
Assad, a master of the waiting game, knows he can starve and bomb the Syrian opposition from its remaining redoubts so long as he does not resort to chemical weapons again.
“The regime’s illegal, indiscriminate use of conventional weapons are the biggest killer of civilians,” said a statement from official Syrian opposition negotiating team. “As long as Assad can pursue his military strategy through conventional weapons, Syrians will continue to die and there will be no resolution to the conflict.”
The Assad strategy, with the help of Iran and Russia, is to expel what it regards as the terrorists town by town until they are corralled and destroyed in Idlib, a province of 2 million people in north-west Syria that the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, at the weekend identified as the next humanitarian disaster. Tens of thousands have been displaced to Idlib, partly from previous Assad victories.
But that does not mean the conflict has a linear path to a single conclusion, since Syria is now the cockpit for a series of civil wars.
Israel, unwilling to tolerate the Iran-backed Shia militia Hezbollah close to its borders, said at the weekend it would continue to attack positions inside Syria. The Arab League meeting in Saudi Arabia on Sunday also adopted a strongly anti-Iranian position after being urged by Trump on Friday to ensure that Tehran does not profit from the eradication of Isis. He added: “We have asked our partners to take greater responsibility for securing their home region.”
Turkey, a Nato member, still has ambitions to drive Kurdish forces farther from its southern borders. Russia and Iran are at best ambiguous about Turkish intentions, fearing Syria’s dismemberment.
That leaves the west with ever-reducing leverage save the offer of reconstruction money. The EU will hold a Syria reconstruction conference on 24-25 April, but
the last week appears to have shown that so far as the west is concerned, Assad can press ahead with this brutality, so long as does not use chlorine or Sarin in the process.
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