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In Search of Peace in Syria: From Obama to Putin

Few issues have been more polarizing for lefties in recent years than the ongoing crisis in Syria. The beginning of the conflict was indeed fueled by US imperial machinations, in addition to President Bashar Assad’s obscene violence in response to the initial uprising. The CIA’s long-standing Syrian meddling certainly did not help matters, nor did the US war on Iraq, which gave rise to the ruthless Islamic State. It’s been an ugly affair, with over 220,000 deaths according to UN estimates and another 4.1 million refugees fleeing their homeland in search of safety. Perhaps the only real winners thus far have been Israel and ISIS.

Many on the left have cheered Russia’s recent entrance into the battlefield, believing it is a direct blow to US interests in the region. No doubt it’s been a geopolitical gamble for Russia to make with its own economy on the fritz. Publicly, the Russians have stated their targets in Syria are Islamic State, but on the ground they’ve largely bombed US-backed rebels. Yet, that may soon be changing if we are to believe the rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin. Here’s why.

Shortly after Russia began dropping bombs on Syria, Obama was already backing off his calls to get rid of Assad through the use of force.

“We are prepared to work both diplomatically and where we can to support moderate opposition that can help convince the Russians and Iranians to put pressure on Assad for a transition,” Obama told 60 Minutes in the interview in early October. “But … what we are not going to do is to try to reinsert ourselves in a military campaign inside of Syria.”

In other words, Obama’s plan for Syria had already failed and he was reluctant to get more involved in another Middle East catastrophe as he had caused in Libya and is prolonging in Afghanistan. Indeed, Obama implied his administration was ready to sit down with Russia and Iran to discuss how they could put an end to the Syrian war.

It is now three weeks later and that’s exactly what is happening. First the US and Russia signed a deal that would help avoid clashes in Syrian airspace. What this entailed was simple: sharing of flight patterns, types of aircraft being utilized, and precise regions where operations were taking place. In other words, both sides are now openly discussing details of their operations with one another as well as a strict protocol in case of mishaps.

While many have seen Russia’s bombing as a direct blow to Obama’s prowess (indeed many see the two as arch-enemies), it’s clear their relationship and intentions in Syria are complex and nuanced.

Last week, shortly after John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke on the phone about the Syria, Lavrov claimed Russia was ready to help US-backed Free Syrian Army fighters. This, of course, must have come as a great surprise to many who believed Russia’s sole purpose in Syria was to beat back the bloody Americans. How could the Russians now possibly say they want to help them? Aren’t all Syrian opposition forces extremists?

“External players can not decide anything for the Syrians. We must force them to come up with a plan for their country where the interests of every religious, ethnic and political group will be well protected,” Lavrov told Russian state TV. “They need to prepare for both parliamentary and presidential elections.”

Now Syrian talks in Vienna are to begin on Friday between the US, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, the European Union and France. What comes out of these meetings remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain, Obama appears to be ready to agree on ways in which Assad can remain in power for the short-term, but must exit after the opposition has a seat at the table.

Regardless if such an agreement will ever transpire (can any of these countries be trusted?), it’s obvious that Russia’s role in Syria is not solely to embarrass the United States. If anything, Putin doesn’t want to get bogged down in a conflict that could become another Soviet war in Afghanistan, and sitting down with various interests may well be his best strategy.

What if Russia does agree to help US-backed FSA fight ISIS? Despite the claims that most FSA fighters are in cahoots with IS or al-Nusra, reports on the ground suggest this is not entirely the case — a reality even Russia appears to acknowledge. FSA is most certainly not a united front, but more of band of individual brigades with varying allegiances and interests. Will Russia aid the units that are fighting IS, even if they’ve been backed by the US? Time will tell, but if we are to believe Lavrov, it appears to be a strong possibility.

Of course, if things do get even more out of hand it could get far worse, not better for Syria. As of this writing Obama is set to deploy 50 Special Operations commandos into Northern Syria to aid rebel factions. It’s likely Obama’s new maneuver wouldn’t have occurred had Russia not joined the fray. This, after Obama repeatedly stated he was against putting boots on the ground. It’s also clear NATO is ready to patrol Turkish borders, and in instances where Obama may back down, war-hawks like Hillary Clinton are ready to escalate the conflict — she’s already calling for a no-fly zone that would be enforced by military means, likely with US troops. None of these scenarios would be good for Syrians.

Speaking of Syrians, much that is missing in the left-wing debate on Syria are the very real impacts on those who experience the brunt of the violence, no matter who’s behind it. The UN recently reported that since Russia began its air assault that at least 120,000 people were uprooted. Areas that had largely escaped the war are now in the middle of new battles. Additionally, reports that Russian missiles struck four hospitals has been virtually ignored by the pro-Russian interventionists, and that must change – or we risk becoming as sinister as our adversaries.

Let’s hope, whatever happens, that Syrians have a stake in their own destiny, free of the confines and violence inflicted upon them by their own government, the United States, ISIS and yes, now the Russians.

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JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book, co-authored with Jeffrey St. Clair, is Big Heat: Earth on the Brink. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank

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