Monday, September 19, 2016

The Syrian Conflict Gets That Much Worse

The Syrian Conflict was starting to show some signs of hope after the new ceasefire. Then this happened. 
The Story
Over the weekend, the US-backed coalition directly bombed Syrian government forces, killing 62-83 troops and injuring more than a hundred. The strike occurred in a battle between ISIS and the Syrian forces near Deir Ezzor. The strikes thus directly benefitted ISIS, and Russia and Syria both promptly freaked out (with good reason).
Here’s the link to a write-up on the story from CNN:
Why This Matters
Syria already had a lot of problems, with multiple foreign powers involve and competing interests all around. One of the only silver linings so far of the war has been that the US armed forces had not directly engaged Russia or its ally Syria in battle.
This meant the clash of the US and Russia in Syria was an indirect proxy war. That’s still terrible, but it’s somewhat familiar territory. The US and Russia (or its predecessor) have engaged in proxy wars before without the conflicts spiraling into a new global war or a nuclear exchange.
So while Syria was still a dangerous and appalling tragedy, we could previously take some minor solace in the fact that it wasn’t even worse. Now it is worse.
The question is how the US will respond in the aftermath. So far, the US has responded by downplaying the episode and accusing Russia of hysterics. Needless to say, this is probably not the best way to improve relations.
Corrections and Context
The Russians have accused the US of intentionally backing ISIS based on this recent attack. While this claim is understandable, it’s probably not accurate.
Given a choice in explanations between government conspiracy and government incompetence, the latter is usually more compelling. In this case, there’s little doubt that the US would like to overthrow Syria. But it’s unlikely they would want to directly strengthen ISIS in the process.
At least officially, many US policymakers think (hope) that overthrowing Syria would result in some kind of moderate democratic force would rise to replace him.This is nonsense, but it has important implications. Since everyone agrees ISIS is not such a democratic force, the US government is unlikely to directly support them. Indirect benefits accrue to them all the time from US foreign policy, but direct support, with no plausible deniability, is probably a bridge too far.
Also, we should note that the US’s dismissal of Russian concerns over this issue is completely unjustified. To see why, we only need to put the shoe on the other foot for a moment. Imagine if Russia had accidentally bombed and killed nearly 100, say, Israeli soldiers. If such an incident happened, there should be no doubt that the US would rush to make an international incident over it, complete with sanctions and the like.
Indeed, we actually know this conclusively from recent events. Back in 2014, Russia was accused, by the new Ukrainian regime and the West, of arming eastern Ukrainian rebels who then accidentally shot down a civilian airliner. No one alleged that Russia shot this down intentionally; the conventional story does not have Russian troops actually pulling the trigger, and it was not even independently proven that it was a Russian-provided missile system that shot the plane down in the first place. But in spite of this extreme ambiguity, the West rushed to judgment and even imposed sanctions on Russian.
Given this very recent context, it is utterly hypocritical that the US is attempting to downplay Russian and Syrian concerns in this case. But then, there’s nothing new about US hypocrisy in the realm of foreign affairs.
Finally, as an update on this story, it appears this incident was sufficient to break the ceasefire and return Syria to its awful status quo. Chaos 15, Peace 0.

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