Wretched Syria

BY Tariq Mushtaq

Superpower chess board

The United States, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement, has “done all it could to destroy the atmosphere encouraging cooperation.” From day one, there was apprehension: how could Washington cooperate with Russia to form a common front against rebels when they are backed by Washington itself?

As the month started, U.S.-Russia relations fell to a new post-Cold War low as the Obama administration abandoned efforts to cooperate with Russia on ending the Syrian civil war and forming a common front against rebels and terrorists there, and Moscow suspended a landmark nuclear agreement.

The latter move, scuttling a deal the two countries signed in 2000 to dispose of their stocks of weapons-grade plutonium, was largely symbolic. But it provided the Kremlin with an opportunity to cite a series of what it called “unfriendly actions” toward Russia, from Ukraine-related and human rights sanctions to the deployment of NATO forces in the Baltics.

The United States, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement, has “done all it could to destroy the atmosphere encouraging cooperation.” From day one, there was apprehension: how could Washington cooperate with Russia to form a common front against rebels when they are backed by Washington itself?

Of far more immediate concern, the end of the Syria deal left the administration with no apparent diplomatic options remaining to stop the carnage in Aleppo and beyond after the collapse of a short-lived cease-fire deal negotiated last month.

The United State announced that it was withdrawing personnel who have been meeting in Geneva over the past several weeks with Russian counterparts to plan coordinated air-strikes against al-Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists in Syria. The coordination was to start as soon as a cease-fire, begun 12 September 2016, took hold and humanitarian aid began to flow to besieged communities where civilians have borne the brunt of Russian-backed President Bashar al-Assad’s response to a five-year effort to oust him.

The Syria agreement was part of a year-long effort spearheaded by Secretary of State John F. Kerry to persuade Russia to help bring a negotiated political end to the war. In exchange for using its leverage with Assad to ground his air force and allow aid to flow, the United States said it would work to separate US backed opposition groups from terrorist forces with which they have become increasingly intertwined.

Instead, after just a few days of a fitful truce, both Syria and Russia stepped up their bombing attacks in Aleppo and elsewhere in the country, including the destruction of an aid convoy. Russia, while denying the convoy attack, justified its air-strikes by saying that the cease-fire, along with US failure to disengage the opposition from the Front for the Conquest of Syria, the al Qaeda group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, allowed the terrorists to rearm and expand their territory.

Russia’s version of the sequence of events mandated by the deal is “explicitly not true,” a senior administration official said. “Separation was not step one,” but was supposed to occur after seven days without major violence. The Russians, the official said, have “constantly tried to move the goal posts.”

The Damascus government officially declared the truce over on 19 September 2016. Since then, Syrian and Russian aircraft have carried out a massive barrage from the air over Aleppo, including what a U.S. intelligence official said were barrel bombs, thermo-baric bombs, incendiary munitions, cluster bombs and bunker busters.

Unrelenting strikes, many of them targeting hospitals and medical facilities, have killed hundreds of children in a week’s time.

Russia began its air campaign in Syria on 30 September 2015 following a weeks long buildup of fighter jets and attack aircraft. Long-range bombers flying from Russia and Iran have also been used to attack Syrian rebels, backed by the United States

Kerry said last week that the United States was “on the verge” of suspending the Syria agreement. “The decision today came after a long, deliberate period of trying to give them every benefit of the doubt,” the Washington administration said that when they’re targeting hospitals, and using these kinds of weapons, that’s not a misunderstanding. It doesn’t mean we’ve shut the door, if the Russians are willing to get serious about implementing the deal, although there is virtually no optimism that the agreement can be revived.

But in a series of meetings, it has been found, no alternative that has not already been considered, and previously discarded as unworkable or too risky in terms of broadening the Syrian conflict. President Obama is said to be no more willing to involve US forces, air or ground, in the conflict than he was when it began five years ago.

It’s certainly the worst period between the two countries since the chess game started; it’s obvious that things have been deteriorating across the board. After the expiry of ceasefire deal, in a decree released by the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would consider a resumption of the nuclear accord only if Washington agreed to several conditions, including canceling all sanctions and compensating Moscow for losses resulting from them and a peaceful solution of Syria.

The plutonium agreement was once hailed as an example of successful US-Russian cooperation. Signed in 2000 and updated in 2010, it required both countries to dispose of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium, enough to make approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons, according to the State Department.

Russia had soured on the deal over differences with the United States on how to dispose of the plutonium. Moscow said it has opened a plant that converts the weapons-grade material into fuel known as MOX, which can be used in commercial reactors; construction of a similar US plant in South Carolina has been plagued by delays and cost overruns.

The US side has been split between those who want to build a plant as a way to encourage the Russians, and those who think it safer and cheaper to dilute the plutonium into less harmful material and dispose it off.

Putin’s move is not a shock and reflects more of an opportunity for Moscow to register political dissatisfaction than a serious threat to nuclear nonproliferation. In his decree, Putin said that none of the plutonium was being used for the purpose of making nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, for any research, development, design or testing related to such devices, or for any other military purposes.

On the other side, Russia has deployed an advanced anti-missile system to Syria for the first time, the latest indication that Moscow continues to ramp up its military operations in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad. It comes after Russia’s actions led to the collapse of a cease-fire and the cut-off of direct talks with the US. While Moscow’s motives are not certain, the new weapon system could potentially counter any American cruise missile attack in Syria.

Components of the SA-23 Gladiator anti-missile and anti-aircraft system, which has a range of roughly 150 miles, arrived over the weekend “on the docks” of a Russian naval base along Syria’s Mediterranean coastal city of Tartus. It is the first time Russia has deployed the SA-23 system outside its borders. The missiles and associated components are still in their crates and are not yet operational, according to the officials.

While the purpose is not clear, US is sarcastic on this latest development as Nusra doesn’t have an air force, the Islamic State also does not fly any manned aircraft or possess cruise missiles, in a sign that Russia is directing its actions to protect itself against any potential attack from the United States or its allies.

The SA-23 can fire two different types of missiles. A smaller missile is used against aircraft and cruise missiles and is known by NATO as Gladiator. The larger missile is used against intermediate-range ballistic missiles and jamming aircraft and is known as Giant. Both missiles use the same type of warhead containing over 300 pounds of explosives, according to military-today.com.

Three years ago, President Obama weighed military action against the Assad regime’s chemical weapons facilities as well as airbases housing the regime’s attack helicopters and jets. US Navy ships in the eastern Mediterranean were prepared to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles in a limited strike to cripple the regime.

Russia deployed a separate air defense system, the S-400, to Syria after a Russian jet was shot down by a Turkish warplane last November. Since the S-400 deployment, the US military has been careful about flying manned aircraft inside the range of the system, despite repeated pledges by the US military that its air-strikes in Syria are focused on ISIS, not the Assad regime.

Hours after the State Department announced it was cutting off talks with Moscow, President Vladimir Putin said he had suspended a Russia-US deal on the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium.

Russia began its air campaign in Syria on 30 September 2015 following a weeks long buildup of fighter jets and attack aircraft. Long-range bombers flying from Russia and Iran have also been used to attack Syrian rebels, backed by the United States.

The one-year anniversary of the Russian strikes, the State Department acknowledged that Russia had succeeded in its goal of propping up the Assad regime.

How can Syria come out of the present destructive turmoil created by the chess game of the super powers? The only possible way is to divide Syria into two parts, one lead by Bashar al Assad and the other by the Sunni Muslims. Perhaps then there will be peace once again.

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