What are we to make of events in Syria now that Secretary of State Kerry’s latest (and very possibly last) attempt to establish a limited cease-fire has gone down too literally in flames? This is not the first such failure, of course: There have been eight previous attempts to stop the tragic violence and bring opposing sides to the negotiating table, beginning with two such efforts by the Arab League in late 2011. But this time, things are different. Questions are raised. It is possible the beginning of the end has just begun.
Kerry’s accord with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, collapsed in spectacular fashion last week. The Syrian army and air force, supported by Russian bombers, instantly mounted a campaign against rebel-controlled East Aleppo that may be the fiercest yet conducted in this war. In the news reports it starts to resemble a minor-league blitzkrieg: A decisive finality appears to be the objective. Why this, why now? We reach a critical moment in this very critical post–Cold War crisis. So it is important to read into these latest events, even as our corporate media are not going to offer any help as we do.
We seek causality, in other words. The startling speed and ferocity of the new Syrian-Russian advance more or less shoves us up against the question. This is a display of force without restraint, so far as one can make out. It is also an assault on Kerry’s diplomatic efforts, we must not miss—a middle finger raised in anger. So if it is aggressive action, we must also understand it as reaction and then ask, “To what?”
The Obama administration, to the evident perplexity of the Russians, insisted on secrecy as the Kerry-Lavrov agreement was concluded September 9. We do not even know what is in it apart from an outline of responsibilities assigned to each side. As widely reported, the Russians were to restrict the Assad government’s bombing sorties, and their own, to designated targets—Islamic State and al-Nusra positions—and relief columns were to enjoy safe passage. The Americans were to require their “moderate rebels”—we stay with quotation marks, of course—to separate from those considered immoderate. If all went well, we were in for a breakthrough of potential consequence: Russian and American air-force officers were to strategize jointly against the Islamic State and al-Nusra, the two groups both sides agree are to be defeated.
There is plenty of blur—officially generated, per usual—as one tries to decipher what went so quickly and badly wrong as soon as the Kerry-Lavrov accord went into effect. At this point, it is a truism to say there are no innocents in this conflict other than its victims and the millions forced to flee. It does not appear as if either the Assad government or its battlefield adversaries took the deal seriously enough. Nothing new in this. But there is a new reality we must consider: Moscow appears to have given up on the Americans. Having long sought to “partner” with Washington—Russian officials use the term habitually—the Putin government has just given Americans a rough shove in full knowledge, apparently, of the potentially grave consequences in any number of contexts.