A new ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia may have been agreed between some of the warring parties in Syria, but the bombing and dying continues.
In Homs and Damascus, at least 200 people died in bomb blasts at the weekend. John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, the co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group, have claimed that the chances for a ceasefire have never been so good. But again one must fear that Moscow and the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, will continue to create hard facts on the ground while Mr. Kerry sings the praises of peace in angelic tones.
At the Munich Security Conference this month, U.S. senator John McCain was right to call on the West to develop a strategy for stopping the chaos in the Middle East.
First, this means blocking Moscow’s power politics and second, overcoming the West’s own shock-induced rigidity. Whoever wants to silence the weapons in Syria can’t get around the need for a security zone for the civilian population that is guaranteed by the West. It is not by chance that Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has revived this idea: It would reduce the influx of refugees.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia knows his Machiavelli and is confronting the West with a strategy of divide and conquer.
But first, America and Europe must thwart Moscow’s treacherous game. President Vladimir Putin knows his Machiavelli and is confronting the West with a strategy of “divide and conquer.” In Munich, Mr. McCain said the Russian leader is using Syrians fleeing from Russian bombs as a “weapon” in order to drive a wedge into Europe.
It was easy to see how well that is working in the lack of unanimity at the last E.U. summit. Moreover, Moscow is intentionally exacerbating its spat with NATO member Turkey – and knows full well that the North Atlantic defense alliance would be faced with a crucial test if an incident along the Turkish-Syrian border were to force its mutual-defense clause to be invoked.
Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, is saying out loud what others are only thinking: NATO cannot allow itself to be drawn into a military escalation with Russia as a result of the recent tensions between Russia and Turkey. The promise of mutual assistance is on shaky legs.
Dissension is also being sown domestically. The German government is said to have information that Moscow is using intelligence-service methods to influence public debate in Germany. If that is true, then the warning of Russia’s prime minister, Dimitry Medvedev, about a new Cold War is more than justified. Attempts to destabilize the opponent belong to the bag of dirty tricks of Cold Warriors.
Unity is the best means for stopping Mr. Putin’s strategy of “divide and conquer.” But while Russia is pursuing a clear goal in Syria – stabilizing a government that is acceptable to Moscow – the West and its allies have a tangle of what are to some extent contradictory interests.
The Turks want to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state, the Saudis seek to keep their arch-enemy Iran at bay, the Europeans want to stop the influx of refugees and to destroy the so-called Islamic State, a goal shared by the Americans who, however, don’t wish to be drawn into a new war.
But whoever wants Moscow to come around must stop Mr. Putin from further intervening in Syria during and after ceasefire negotiations. Of all the bad options, a civilian protection zone is still the best one. There are no longer any good options in Syria, but we know that we can’t simply sit and watch until the conflict burns itself out.
Today it would be much more difficult and risky to impose a security zone than a year ago. The undertaking resembles a game of Russian roulette, especially in the fought-over region around Aleppo where the danger of a direct confrontation between Saudis, Turks and Russians is greatest. But in eastern Syria, where the American presence is heaviest, this still represents a possibility for easing the humanitarian catastrophe. But it must be clear to everyone that this won’t be achieved without support on the ground.
Experience in Ukraine shows that Mr. Putin only backs down when the West acts with decisiveness and unanimity. That is not a substitute for diplomacy, but it at least provides the West with a means of pressure.
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