Syria’s failed cease-fire

Our view: Truce break­down shouldn’t dis­tract the U.S. from its vi­tal in­ter­est

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

What is hap­pen­ing in Syria is heart­break­ing. The short-lived cease-fire bro­kered by the U.S. and Rus­sia two weeks ago col­lapsed ig­no­min­iously be­fore it was even fully im­ple­mented. Mean­while, Rus­sian and Syr­ian gov­ern­ment air­craft are back in the skies drop­ping in­cen­di­ary weapons and bunker-bust­ing bombs on be­lea­guered civil­ian pop­u­la­tions in Aleppo and other cities. Res­i­dents say the sav­agery of the aerial as­sault is the worst they have seen dur­ing Syria’s five-year civil war.

Yet it’s clear the ex­tent to which the U.S can al­le­vi­ate the suf­fer­ing of or­di­nary Syr­i­ans is lim­ited. Short of top­pling the gov­ern­ment of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, there may be no way of swiftly end­ing the fight­ing. The events of the last two weeks have shown that Rus­sia can’t be trusted to honor a truce in any mean­ing­ful way. And it would be a mis­take to get our­selves more deeply em­broiled in a chaotic con­flict with part­ners whose al­le­giances are con­stantly shift­ing in a coun­try where the U.S. has no di­rect na­tional in­ter­est at stake be­yond what we’re al­ready do­ing to de­grade and de­stroy the so-called Is­lamic State.

Among all the avail­able op­tions, the least bad may be to con­tinue press­ing Rus­sia and Mr. As­sad to al­low hu­man­i­tar­ian aid to reach rebel-held ar­eas in east Aleppo and other parts of the coun­try where the fight­ing has left tens of thou­sands of civil­ians with­out ac­cess to food, fuel, medicines and elec­tric­ity. The United Na­tions has called on the Syr­ian and Rus­sian gov­ern­ments to stop the bomb­ing and shelling of schools, hos­pi­tals and res­i­den­tial ar­eas, which are be­ing sys­tem­at­i­cally de­stroyed and where the death toll among civil­ians re­port­edly has reached100 a day.

Wash­ing­ton and Moscow con­tinue to trade ac­cu­sa­tions over which side was re­spon­si­ble for break­ing the Syr­ian truce, but at this point the ar­gu­ment is aca­demic. Rus­sia is an un­re­li­able part­ner with an agenda at odds with U.S. goals. Our main ob­jec­tive in Syria is the de­struc­tion of ISIS in or­der to pre­vent it from ex­port­ing ji­hadist mil­i­tants to desta­bi­lize other coun­tries in the re­gion or to at­tack tar­gets in Europe and the U.S. How much longer Mr. As­sad can cling to power is a sec­ondary is­sue, how­ever much we might wish to see him gone.

The re­sump­tion of fight­ing in Syria has prompted calls for the U.S. to take stronger ac­tion against the As­sad regime, but none of the al­ter­na­tives put for­ward seem likely to ad­vance our vi­tal na­tional in­ter­est there within a rea­son­able time frame or at an ac­cept­able cost. Some have sug­gested giv­ing U.S.-backed rebel groups anti-air­craft weapons to de­fend them­selves and ex­act a toll on Rus­sian and Syr­ian planes and pilots; oth­ers — in­clud­ing Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton — want the U.S. to use its air power to cre­ate safe zones for Syr­ian refugees or set up buf­fer zones along the coun­try’s bor­ders with Turkey and Iraq.

But giv­ing shoul­der-fired anti-air­craft mis­siles to rebel groups could eas­ily back­fire if those weapons were lost, stolen or oth­er­wise fell into the hands of ri­val fight­ers who could then use them to down a U.S. war­plane or a com­mer­cial air­liner. There’ve been too many cases in which weapons in­tended for U.S.-backed forces on the ground ended up be­ing used against us or our al­lies. Like­wise, the prob­lem with safe zones is that en­forc­ing them risks U.S planes com­ing into con­flict with Syr­ian or Rus­sian air­craft in the coun­try’s crowded airspace, and pos­si­bly set­ting off an in­ter­na­tional in­ci­dent that makes an al­ready bad sit­u­a­tion worse.

The U.S. can try to lower the im­pact of the vi­o­lence on or­di­nary Syr­i­ans by back­ing lo­cal cease-fires wher­ever pos­si­ble to al­low hu­man­i­tar­ian aid to reach ar­eas be­sieged by the gov­ern­ment, and when it does its as­sis­tance should be un­stint­ing. It can also shore up sup­port for strate­gic al­lies in the re­gion like Jor­dan and urge re­straint by Turkey in its feud with the Kurds, who have been among the most ef­fec­tive fight­ers against ISIS. But above all the U.S. needs to keep pound­ing the Is­lamic State in or­der to bring about its swift demise. That, at least, is within our power to achieve.

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