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The Trump-Putin ceasefire in Syria may hold. Here’s why

The ceasefire agreed by Presidents Putin and Trump has better prospects of success than the previous ceasefires agreed by Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov because the Trump administration is more united and has a more realistic policy towards Syria than did the Obama administration.

During his press conference following his meeting with President Macron, US President Trump spoke with hope and some pride about the ceasefire in southern Syria he agreed with Russian President Putin during their meeting on the margins of the G20 summit

Here is what President Trump said

One of the great things that came out if this meeting, by the way, was the fact that we got the ceasefire that now has lasted for almost five days. Five days doesn’t sound like a long period of time. In terms of a ceasefire in Syria it’s a very long period of time……

That was a result of having communication with a country. During that five day period a lot of lives have been saved, a lot of people were not killed, no shots have been fired in a very, very dangerous part of the world and this is one of the most dangerous parts of Syria itself.

By having some communication and dialogue we were able to have a ceasefire and it’s going to go on for a while. And frankly we’re working on the second ceasefire in a very rough part of Syria.

(bold italics added)

One senses in these words the pride of a man who sees himself first and foremost as a deal maker who has just done a successful deal.

Moreover in what he says President Trump is not wrong.  The previous ceasefire negotiated by by the US and Russia in Syria – the one agreed in September by US Secretary of State Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov – required weeks of agonising negotiating to come into effect and then lasted just four days.

There are three reasons why this ceasefire however stands a better prospect of success than the two ceasefires Kerry and Lavrov agreed with each other over the course of 2016, the first in February and the second in September.

The first is that President Trump agreed it himself.   Unlike President Obama, who never wholeheartedly committed himself to either of the two ceasefires negotiated by Kerry, that means that this ceasefire has behind it the authority of the President himself.

Even when a President is as much in conflict with the bureaucracy as President Trump is, it is nonetheless far more difficult for disaffected members of the bureaucracy to sabotage a policy that is backed by the President himself.

The second is that on this issue the President may actually have the support of the key figures in the bureaucracy.

It has not been widely noted but President Trump has a far more coherent foreign policy team than President Obama ever did.

Obama’s practice was to balance supposed ‘realists’ within his administration with ideological liberal interventionists or neocons by giving both posts in his administration in a way that made it easier for him to play them off against each other.

This was justified as an inclusive ‘team of rivals’ approach supposedly borrowed from the one used by President Lincoln in the Civil War.  My opinion is that it was actually intended to cover Obama’s tracks, making it possible for him to let one member of his administration carry the can for a policy, and then using another member of the administration to undermine or overturn the policy if it ran into trouble.

A classic example was the way Ashton Carter – Obama’s neocon Defense Secretary – was allowed to sabotage the ceasefire Kerry painstakingly negotiated with Lavrov last September as soon as it became clear that it was unpopular with the regime change hardliners in Congress and the media and within the administration itself.

Though this was clever politics, it made negotiating with the Obama administration on a subject like Syria ultimately impossible.

By contrast one gets the sense that the top members of Donald Trump’s foreign policy team – Tillerson, Mattis and McMaster – are on the same page and work well with each other as a united team.  Importantly it seems that all three of them are fully signed up to the President’s Syrian policy, and want to make the ceasefire work.

The key figure is Defense Secretary Mattis.  Not only does he appear to be especially close to the President – apparently they meet regularly and often lunch together – but as a former Marine General he appears to have the  US military in Syria fully under control.

It has become increasingly clear over the last few weeks that it is Mattis who has day to day control of US policy in Syria.  Moreover he appears to be a voice of (relative) moderation.  Strikingly, following Sean Spicer’s phoney ‘warning’ to President Assad of a few weeks ago it was Mattis who stepped in to calm the situation by saying that the ‘warning’ ‘appeared to have been heeded’ so that an attack on Syria was not actually necessary.

With Mattis in control of the US military in Syria and backing the ceasefire there is much less risk of US action being taken to undermine the ceasefire than was the case with the ceasefire agreed last September.

Thirdly and lastly, despite all the problems and obstacles – some of which it must be said are self-created – the Trump administration overall has a much more realistic policy in Syria than did the Obama administration.

The Obama administration never gave up its objective of achieving regime change in Syria by overthrowing President Assad’s government in Damascus.

In the summer of 2015 it was preparing to declare a no-fly zone over Syria – ie. start a bombing campaign against the Syrian military – even at the risk of allowing ISIS to capture Damascus.  In the spring of 2016 it supported a Jihadi offensive to capture Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city.   In the autumn of 2016 some of its more militant members appear pressed for military action to stop the Syrian military liberating the Jihadi controlled eastern district of Aleppo.

By contrast the Trump administration has accepted that the forcible overthrow of President Assad’s government is unachievable.  Instead it is focused on gaining leverage in Syria by establishing areas controlled by its proxies there whilst at the same time making genuine efforts to achieve the destruction of ISIS.

Recently, in the face of the rapid advances by the Syrian army, the Trump administration seems to have given up its plan to establish a big statelet controlled by its Sunni proxies in central and eastern Syria, and appears to be more focused on building up a large pro-US Kurdish controlled statelet in the north.

In my opinion this policy will also eventually fail, and I believe that the whole of Syria, including its northern Kurdish areas, will eventually be brought back under the control of President Assad’s Syrian government in Damascus.

Whether or not I am right about that, it still remains the case that this is a much more realistic policy than the Obama’s administration’s policy of seeking regime change in Damascus.

Given that the Trump administration’s objectives in Syria are more realistic and limited than those of the Obama administration, and do not include regime change in Damascus, that means that a ceasefire in southern Syria will not be perceived by members of the Trump administration as a defeat, as the two ceasefires negotiated by Kerry were perceived by members of the Obama administration.

None of this unfortunately guarantees the success of the latest ceasefire.  Given that Al-Qaeda and ISIS are still on the loose in Syria, and given that countries like Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey are all still active there, confidence that any ceasefire anywhere in Syria is likely to hold would be foolhardy.

However President Trump is right to say that this ceasefire is more likely to hold than the earlier ones.

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Alexander Mercouris
Editor-in-Chief atThe Duran.

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