The Trump administration’s decision to add more ground troops to Syria’s seething cauldron is likely to scuttle United Nations peace talks. It could also be the most toxic of many blows President Donald Trump has dealt himself since he entered the Oval Office.
He could soon have the awful task of explaining new body bags holding elite American troops fallen in battle without advancing peace in Syria. The Pentagon almost doubled US soldiers to over 900 in Syria early this month.
UN mediator Stefan di Mistura has been working overtime since Trump’s arrival to get credible peace talks on Syria off the ground in Geneva, but the ice is thinning around him.
American soldiers and new deliveries of heavy war fighting materiel will strengthen pro-US Kurdish and Arab fighters who insist that President Bashar al Assad must be ousted if the UN-mediated peace talks are to be meaningful.
But at talks in early March, Mistura was forced to accept a new demand by Assad that counter terrorism in Syria be added to the agenda for the next session expected to start on March 23.
Assad brands all his armed political enemies as terrorists, including the US-backed forces. Mistura’s acquiescence now allows him to use the label of counter terrorism to destroy all who stand against him. Implicitly, the peace talks can no longer dethrone Assad.
A decision of the UN Security Council last week endorsed these new realities by welcoming Mistura’s “clear agenda for future negotiations… focusing on governance; constitutional issues; elections; and counter terrorism, security and confidence building measures”.
Since Mistura’s mediation is conducted under authority of the Security Council, an implication of this endorsement is that it no longer sees Assad’s removal as a necessary condition for moving forward to a lasting peace deal.
In effect, Assad will now be a major player in helping to decide on the three central issues originally laid down by the Security Council, namely, who will govern Syria, how its new inclusive constitution will be drawn up, and the process of free and fair elections.
Trump’s dispatch of more elite ground troops termed special advisors to Syria will encourage anti-Assad forces to dig in their heels, again bringing the Geneva talks to a halt.
None of the issues in Mistura’s mediation can be advanced without a cessation of hostilities that holds without too many violations. This process has moved out of the hands of the US and its allies.
It is being controlled almost entirely by Russia, Iran and Turkey in talks begun earlier this year in Astana, Kazakhstan. Assad plays a central role because Iran and Russia are his staunch allies and Turkey is a new friend, despite being a US ally through NATO.
A cessation of hostilities negotiated at Astana has held so far and significantly helped Mistura to advance his mediation after an earlier collapse of the Geneva peace talks.
The ceasefire became possible because US-backed anti-Assad forces were considerably weakened by onslaughts from Syrian government forces backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Separate assaults by Turkey near its borders weakened pro-American Kurdish fighters.
The US soldiers have been sent to help their protégés defeat the Islamic State and liberate its capital, Raqqa. But peace is unlikely even if Raqqa falls to US allies because Turkey may disrupt American-led stability since the Pentagon is using Syrian Kurds as its main fighting force to take Raqqa.
Turkey has already sent in troops to push back Syrian Kurds from its border areas. It has formed Turkish-backed militias comprising Syrian and other Arabs as proxies to lead the fight for Raqqa.
Its wants US support for those proxies to keep the Kurds out of Raqqa because it fears creation of a large Kurdish autonomous entity near its borders. Turkey sees Syrian Kurds as allied with radical Turkish Kurds and treats both as terrorists trying to destabilize the Turkish State. American reassurances have failed to move Turkish President Recep Erdogan away from these beliefs.
Russians, who are now Assad’s saviors, will also not take kindly to more American troops in Syria. If Turkey and Russia refuse to cooperate with Trump, the Syrian mess could become his quagmire as well.
The head of US Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, told reporters last week that he is open to asking for more conventional military units if needed.
If that happens, Mistura will not be able to help since the UN has no real power. He can mediate successfully only if the outside powers decide to bury their hatchets first.