The latest round of hostilities between Israel and Gaza have concluded. The Egyptian-brokered ceasefire has taken effect and it appears this latest spasm of Israel-Hamas violence is destined to follow a familiar pattern: Tensions rose and fighting between Israel and Gaza militants broke out. Escalation followed with Hamas rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes taking place around the clock. After an obligatory period of silence, Palestinian government officials quietly approached UN and Egyptian diplomats and inquired about the chances of a third-party ceasefire. After a period of backchannel diplomacy, a deal was formed and presented to both parties. Israel agreed without preconditions since its military goals had already been met. Palestinian authorities took their cues from Hamas and readily agreed to the ceasefire. Now the fighting is over and the post-crisis cycle begins once again. Residents of Gaza will clear the rubble, Hamas will begin funneling in weapons, Israel will warily monitor its neighbor and the rest of the world will soon lose interest. Oh, and of course Hamas will claim victory.
We’ve been down this road enough times before and in all likelihood will be traveling it again sooner than expected.
Tensions will remain high for some time, and this ceasefire is no less fragile than those of the past. It will not take much for the fighting to resume. The underlying causes of the conflict remain unchanged: land rights in West Bank, religious tensions in Jerusalem and no prospects for a Mid-East peace process aimed at resolving the conflict in an acceptable way for all parties.
Last but not least is President Joe Biden’s attempt to take some credit for the ceasefire when the truth is that his efforts, undertaken relatively late in the game, came at a point when a ceasefire was already a foregone conclusion. Sources I’ve spoken with in the past 4 hours have confirmed that Biden’s discussions with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi came after Egyptian efforts to broker a ceasefire were already underway.
Or is it simply a pause? Well, I suppose that depends who you ask. The US government is adamantly regarding the agreement made with the Turkish government as a ceasefire. The Turks are referring to it as a pause. Semantics aside, a deal has been reached between the United States and Turkey following a round of negotiations in Ankara between US Vice President Mike Pence and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turks will suspend offensive operations in Syria for 120 hours to allow Kurdish forces to withdraw from the safe zone Ankara intends to establish in northeast Syria. The extent of the ceasefire will extend along the Syria-Turkey border from Tel Abyad to Ras al-Ain. Roughly an area of 100 kilometers. How the ceasefire will affect other areas has yet to be disclosed.
Despite the news coming from Ankara, there is a lot of skepticism around the world concerning the agreement. US economic sanctions against Turkey will be halted at once. This was one of the terms of the deal. Media outlets in the United States and Europe, especially those leaning left were quick to jump on the terms of the agreement and label it a bad deal at best, a continued sellout of the Kurds at worst. There is going to be a considerable amount of scrutiny through the next five days.
The real question will be what comes after the 120 hours of ceasefire/pause end.
Saudi Arabia has agreed to a partial ceasefire in its conflict in Yemen. The ceasefire will take effect in four regions of the war-torn country, including the area around San’a, Yemen’s capital city. If the ceasefire is successful, it will be expanded to other parts of Yemen. The somewhat unexpected move by Riyadh comes in response to Houthi forces declaring a unilateral ceasefire last week. Following the 14 September attacks against Saudi oil facilities, Houthi leaders claimed responsibility. This claim was seen as a move to obscure Iran’s role in the attack and was dismissed by Saudi, US, and European military officers and diplomats. Internally, however, the claim caused a rupture between Houthis who want to cool ties with Iran, and those who want to strengthen the relationship. Some Houthi leaders have even gone as far as to warn Riyadh about Iran’s intention to launch follow-up strikes against targets in Saudi territory.
The ceasefire, should it hold, gives Saudi Arabia’s military a period of time to catch its breath. Operations in Yemen have taken a toll on Saudi forces, especially the Royal Saudi Air Force. Given the direction relations with Iran are going in, it’s very possible the RSAF will be needed soon. At present, the air force’s combat readiness is marginal following four years of conflict in Yemen. Saudi air crews, and commanders need to relearn the tenets of modern air warfare in order to be of use in the coming weeks and months. Even if the Saudis decide not to retaliate militarily against Iran, there’s a strong likelihood that Tehran will launch another overt attack against Saudi Arabia at some point in the future.
According to the Russian and Turkish governments, the Syrian government and opposition rebels have agreed to the ground rules for a ceasefire in the conflict. Both sides have also agreed to peace talks that could potentially bring an end to the almost six year long civil war. The truce does not include ISIS or a host of other terrorist groups now operating inside of Syria. Efforts against ISIS will continue, and a joint US-Russian effort against Islamic Militants is expected to begin sometime after the inauguration of Donald Trump in late January. Turkey and Russia will be the guarantors of the ceasefire, effectively cutting out the United States and other nations that oppose Assad from having influence over what postwar Syria will look like. The US played no part in the negotiations which led to the ceasefire. Turkey itself is staunchly opposed to Bashir al-Assad remaining in power. However, for the time being it appears that Ankara is willing to live with him remaining in Damascus.
The fall of eastern Aleppo made it clear to opposition rebels that their political and military options were now severely limited. The rebels no longer had a strong presence in any of Syria’s largest cities, and the incoming US president will not be resupplying them or supporting their efforts to remove al-Assad any further. Faced with these new realities, the rebels became more pragmatic and sat down with the Syrian government to compromise.
Whether the truce holds and leads to more formal peace talks remains to be seen. Quite honestly, ceasefires in Syria seem to have a history of being made simply to be broken. But this time around, a ceasefire benefits all parties involved, at least for the moment.
Have Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov manipulated Barack Obama and John Kerry effectively and deliberately in all mattered related to Syria? Yes. Has one year of Russian military involvement on the side of the Syrian government all but assured that Bashir al-Assad’s regime will emerge victorious from the Syrian conflict? Probably, yes. Is the United States currently in a position to influence events in Syria or help shape what the nation will look like post-war? Absolutely not.
Today, the US formally suspended diplomatic contact and talks with Russia on the Syrian conflict. This move effectively kills the chances of future joint US-Russian efforts to stop the civil war from worsening. The talks were suspended because of Russia’s involvement in the fighting around Aleppo, as well as its failure to abide by the terms of the ceasefire.
The game is over. The United States has finally woken up and accepted the reality of the situation in Syria. From the moment the first Russian troops set foot on Syrian soil it was obvious that Putin’s intention was not to help usher in a new era of stability and democracy to Syria. Russia’s actions were taken to ensure survival of Bashir al-Assad’s regime and minimize Western influence and actions in the Syrian conflict.
US-Russian relations have been deteriorating for some time now and not only because of what has been happening in Syria. We will discuss this further and look at the potential consequences later on in the week. Today’s announcement by the US and the Russian’s response will have ramifications around the world. Like it or not, the stage is being set for a very frosty winter in US-Russian relations.