With a ceasefire in Syria, there is a glimmer of hope for peace on the horizon for a people that have suffered tremendously. But, that peace would be farther off than many would hope and the current ceasefire in Syria is shaping up to be a shifting narrative both in Syria and abroad.
First and foremost, this new reality in the Syrian Civil War is a major defeat in terms of Obama’s foreign policy and will be the subject of much critique in the coming election cycle. Secondly, this reality of Assad being the only option aside from the Jihadists was guaranteed with the ceasefire, which was not always the case. Thirdly, this firmly establishes Russia as a power broker on the international stage, something that was certainly not the case beforehand.
Now let’s look at the first point: The ceasefire being the final result of a failing US foreign policy. Obama has championed a ‘lead from behind’ approach to foreign policy that has backfired in a major way in Syria. At the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, the major opposition to Assad was the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA was largely led by former officers from the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) that led a moderate-dominated opposition government. The FSA in that form has almost entirely ceased to exist. Lack of experience and a sincere lack of foreign aid led to an increase in extreme Islamist groups (who had foreign backing and experienced commanders) to slowly take manpower and organizational structure away from the loose coalition that was the FSA. In the current day, we see the effects of this with the most powerful (non-ISIS) rebel factions being either Al-Qaeda affiliates (al-Nusra) or at the very least similar in ideology (Islamic Front). The other major rebel groups are either moderates cooperating with the Kurds who have cooperated with the Assad loyalists in the past (Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF) or moderates that have been forced to cooperate with extremists (Southern Front FSA). In essence, the only active, major anti-Assad rebel forces are either direct threats to American foreign policy or, at the very least, on the sidelines vis-à-vis, the Jihadist groups. This ceasefire is essentially the Obama administration coming to terms with the fact that Assad cannot be forcefully ousted from power without compromising American morals.
Therefore, Assad, while lying at the beginning of the conflict by stating he was the only secular option, has created a reality where he is the only viable option for Western powers. It is a sad reality that the faction that regularly barrel-bombed its own people is the ‘moral’ option in the short term for governing the war-torn country. With the SDF’s long history of cooperating with the Assad loyalists to defeat ISIS and the other extremist factions, as well as reports of FSA troops surrendering to Assad for amnesty in return, the conflict is beginning to take on a secularists versus Islamists narrative. Many people, when reading up on the ceasefire have noted that, unlike the ceasefire in Ukraine, the majority of the factions in the conflict are not signatories and are still in open war. The detail that needs to be stressed with this is that the UN and the world at large will not accept anything other than unconditional surrender from the violent extremists. The obvious drawback to this is that the trend of rebels who would otherwise be a part of more moderate factions will join the Jihadists because they’re the only ones fighting and winning against Assad. So, will this ceasefire end the war? Absolutely not. But it will refocus the fight from one of direct regime change to one against Islamic extremism.
But, far and away the most worrying thing about the ceasefire is that Russia has firmly asserted itself as a powerbroker in the Middle East. What has been, ostensibly, a Cold War in the Middle East and North Africa between Saudi Arabia and Iran, now has Russia as the secular third prop to the power struggle. It was Russia, not Iran, that forced Assad into accepting the terms for amnesty and it was Russia that largely saved the Assad loyalists. In a much broader context, this signals the potential for the complete failure of the Pax-Americana in which the US secured a global order due to its sheer muscle power militarily as well as diplomatically. The ceasefire carries no victories for the Obama administration. The SDF, which are greatly aided by the US, has secured a share of the power going into the future but the other moderates (FSA) are almost certainly doomed to defeat. This means that the Obama administration, by negotiating this ceasefire, has conceded a diplomatic defeat to Russia. With rampant Russian aggression, this bodes terribly for the future of American diplomacy going forward and guarantees uncertainty for global security in the future.
In short, while this ceasefire has been almost inevitable, in no uncertain terms, it has been a part of a complete disaster due to a weak-willed and weak-minded ‘lead from behind’ foreign policy approach during the Obama years. The effects of the ceasefire deal won’t be immediately visible but they are the culmination of years of foreign policy decline. The current trajectory shows that the US is only able to secure foreign policy victories when, and only when, the parties opposite are in almost full agreement with the American bottom line (Iran and Cuba), whereas when the parties opposite are in complete opposition to the American bottom line, the US flounders and fails (Syria and Ukraine). Forgive me for sounding pessimistic, but Pyrrhus isn’t fondly remembered for his victories and I’m worried Obama won’t be either.