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US Syria Strategy Officially Unravels: Kerry Admits Timetable For Assad Exit Is Completely Unknown

On Saturday we brought you the latest from Syria where the Assad regime’s rejuvenated forces carried out aggressive air raids on ISIS positions for a second consecutive day on Friday, striking targets in Idlib and Palmyra, the UNESCO heritage site that fell to Islamic State in May. 

The latest round of bombing came just 24 hours after regime planes hit the de facto ISIS capital at Raqqa, and served notice not only to the multifarious anti-government fighters operating in Syria, but also to the US, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, that Russia’s stepped up logistical and technical support is already paying dividends. 

The arrival of four Sukhoi "Flanker" jets and presence of eight Russian military helicopters further underscored the extent to which Moscow is now preparing to play a pivotal combat role and by Friday, Washington was left with little choice but to put Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on the phone with his Russian counterpart. Here’s how we described the situation currently facing the US: 

Moscow, realizing that instead of undertaking an earnest effort to fight terror in Syria, the US had simply adopted a containment strategy for ISIS while holding the group up to the public as the boogeyman par excellence, publicly invited Washington to join Russia in a once-and-for-all push to wipe Islamic State from the face of the earth. Of course The Kremlin knew the US wanted no such thing until Assad was gone, but by extending the invitation, Putin had literally called Washington’s bluff, forcing The White House to either admit that this isn’t about ISIS at all, or else join Russia in fighting them. The genius of that move is that if Washington does indeed coordinate its efforts to fight ISIS with Moscow, the US will be fighting to stabilize the very regime it sought to oust. 

The game, as they say, is officially up for Washington. Toppling Assad will now mean ISIS, al-Nusra, YPG, and the various and sundry other groups operating throughout the country will need to first defeat Russia, an exceptionally unlikely outcome and one that the Pentagon certainly cannot afford to wait out.

All that’s left now is for Washington to try and save face by negotiating for some manner of deal that removes Assad from power, but even that now looks less than likely. Speaking from London on Saturday, John Kerry attempted to hang on to the “Assad must go” narrative, but in what might fairly be described as the most conciliatory language yet, Washington’s top diplomat essentially admitted that the timetable for Assad’s exit is now completely indeterminate. Here’s Reuters:

Speaking after talks with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond in London, Kerry called on Russia and Iran to use their influence over Assad to convince him to negotiate a political transition.

 

Kerry said the United States welcomed Russia's involvement in tackling the Islamic State in Syria but a worsening refugee crisis underscored the need to find a compromise that could also lead to political change in the country.

 

"We need to get to the negotiation. That is what we're looking for and we hope Russia and Iran, and any other countries with influence, will help to bring about that, because that's what is preventing this crisis from ending," said Kerry.

 


 

"For the last year and a half we have said Assad has to go, but how long and what the modality is ...that's a decision that has to be made in the context of the Geneva process and negotiation."

 

Kerry added: "It doesn't have to be on day one or month one ... there is a process by which all the parties have to come together and reach an understanding of how this can best be achieved."

Note that this a far, far cry from the hardline rhetoric the US was still clinging to just months ago and it marks a tacit recognition of what should have been obvious from the very beginning. That is, the US backed effort to assist Qatar and the Saudis in destabilizing the Assad regime was doomed from the start. 

In retrospect, the idea was ludicrous to the point that one wonders how it’s possible that US intelligence officials ever seriously considered it. The notion that Washington and its regional allies could effectively engineer a popular rebellion in Syria by providing support to a multitude of ragtag Sunni extremist groups without plunging the country headlong into chaos is laughable.

The Assad regime is a pillar (if not the pillar) of Iran’s efforts to expand its regional influence and Syria serves as a critical link between Tehran and Hezbollah. Quds Force and its spymaster general Qassem Soleimani have supported the Assad regime both financially and militarily for years and that support hasn't and probably will never will wane. “I don’t think the Iranians are calculating this in terms of dollars. They regard the loss of Assad as an existential threat,” a Mid-East security official told The New Yorker in 2013. “Suleimani told us the Iranians would do whatever was necessary, he said ‘We’re not like the Americans. We don’t abandon our friends’”, an Iraqi politician added. And here is Assad last week: "The relationship between Syria and Iran is an old one. It is over three-and-a-half decades old. There is an alliance based on a great degree of trust. That’s why we believe that the Iranian role is important.”

And let’s not forget that the flip side to the now well-known Qatar-Turkey natural gas pipeline (i.e. the pipeline that would have served to undercut Gazprom’s stranglehold over Europe’s energy needs and that Assad refused to sign off on, triggering the all-out effort to destabilize his regime) is the Islamic Pipeline which, you’ll note on the map below, goes from Iran through Iraq (where Suleimani’s influence is legendary both in government and militarily through the various Shiite militias battling ISIS) to Syria and, conveniently, through Lebanon which works out very nicely for Hezbollah. 

What Putin’s role ultimately would be in the Iran-Iraq-Syria line isn’t entirely clear but the project would compete with the Southern Gas Corridor, which is obviously good for Russia and it seems likely that in one way or another, Moscow, via its influence in Tehran and Damscus, would end up benefiting. Indeed, the fact that Assad signed an MOU for the Islamic Pipeline shortly after citing Gazprom's interests in rejecting the Qatar-Turkey line certainly seems to suggest that Russia had already negotiated for a piece of the pie. As a refresher, recall the following from The Guardian ca. 2013:

In 2009 - the same year former French foreign minister Dumas alleges the British began planning operations in Syria - Assad refused to sign a proposed agreement with Qatar that would run a pipeline from the latter's North field, contiguous with Iran's South Pars field, through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and on to Turkey, with a view to supply European markets - albeit crucially bypassing Russia. Assad's rationale was "to protect the interests of [his] Russian ally, which is Europe's top supplier of natural gas."

 

Instead, the following year, Assad pursued negotiations for an alternative $10 billion pipeline plan with Iran, across Iraq to Syria, that would also potentially allow Iran to supply gas to Europe from its South Pars field shared with Qatar. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the project was signed in July 2012 - just as Syria's civil war was spreading to Damascus and Aleppo - and earlier this year Iraq signed a framework agreement for construction of the gas pipelines. 

 

The Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline plan was a "direct slap in the face" to Qatar's plans. No wonder Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, in a failed attempt to bribe Russia to switch sides, told President Vladmir Putin that "whatever regime comes after" Assad, it will be "completely" in Saudi Arabia's hands and will "not sign any agreement allowing any Gulf country to transport its gas across Syria to Europe and compete with Russian gas exports", according to diplomatic sources. When Putin refused, the Prince vowed military action.

With all of that in mind, it’s incomprehensible that the US ever believed its strategy in Syria had a chance of succeeding. Washington and Riyadh were attempting to simultaneously subvert Tehran’s regional ambitions, tip the Sunni/Shiite divide in favor of Sunni extremists against the Quds even as the US literally attempted to do the exact opposite in neighboring Iraq, and jeopardize Russia’s energy leverage over Europe at a time when that leverage was key to Russia’s bargaining position over Ukraine. To call that a fool’s errand is to be exceptionally generous. 

So now, with the US strategy in tatters, Syria's fate will be decided essentially without Washington's input. Consider the following from Al-Monitor:

High-level talks are due to take place on Sept. 21 between Iran and Russia to discuss Iran’s “four-point plan” for Syria. A senior Iranian official who spoke on condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor that while the details of the plan were still a work in progress, the first stage aimed to contain and deplete IS, with the second stage focused on reaching consensus over the type of government in control of Damascus and Assad’s future role.

In other words, while President Rouhani keeps Obama and Kerry busy with the Mickey Mouse Iran Nuclear Deal, the Ayatollah and Soleimani will be hard at work with Putin and Assad designing Syria's future. 

And finally, lest we should forget that this entire debacle has created a refugee crisis of historic proportions, we leave you with the following quote from John Kerry, who once again refuses to acknowledge that while Bashar al-Assad may not be the most benevolent leader history as ever known, and while regime forces have certainly contributed to human suffering on a massive scale (see Yarmouk), the bottom line is that Syrians are not running from Assad, they are running from the civil war that the US and its allies helped to engineer:

John Kerry: "I just know that the people of Syria have already spoken with their feet. They're leaving Syria."