The Israel Factor in the Syrian Ceasefire

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson says there is a temporary convergence of various powers to have a ceasefire, but the Israeli leadership thinks that an endless war serves its interests

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

A ceasefire took effect in Syria on Monday. The agreement to stop hostilities and to allow for humanitarian aid to enter the besieged city of Aleppo was a result of several weeks’ worth of negotiations between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

It is far from clear, though, whether this ceasefire will hold any better than the last one, which was reached last February and fell apart relatively quickly. Both sides–the Assad government and the rebel factions–have already issued statements that call the agreement into question.

Joining us now to take a closer look at the ceasefire in Syria is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is a retired United States Army soldier and former chief of staff to the United States secretary of state Colin Powell. Wilkerson is an adjunct professor at the College of William & Mary, where he teaches a course on U.S. national security.

So good to have you with us again, Larry.

LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thank you, Sharmini. Good to be back.

PERIES: So, Larry, can the U.S. and Russia control its respective sides in this conflict well enough to bring about a lasting ceasefire?

WILKERSON: I want to say yes, but having seen the results of past such efforts, I’m really reluctant to put any firm imprimatur on it. It just seems like these sides are just too complex and too differing in their orientations and their purposes, and there are too many people on the outside who would like to see this continue basically the way it is, or even perhaps get worse. So it’s very difficult for me.

In the past, as you well know, I’ve said I have some faith that maybe we’ve reached an impasse that can be broached by diplomacy, maybe we’ve got an agreement, and so forth. I’m really reluctant to say that now. Even though the geographical situation, the disposition of forces, and so forth looks as if it might be conducive to something that might last this time, I’m very reluctant to say it will.

PERIES: So, Larry, in the face of things, you have United States and Russia representing various proxies in this very complicated conflict. Already the Syrian government and the major opposition there have come out stating that they have problems with what’s been negotiated. Give us a sense of how complicated and all the various factions that are being represented here.

WILKERSON: I think there are at least seven sides in this, but potentially ten. But there’s certainly Ankara, there’s certainly Bashar al-Assad, there’s certainly Putin in Moscow, there’s certainly Obama and Kerry, there’s Rouhani and the ayatollah, there’s Baghdad, /əˈlɛsɚsa/, there’s the GCC in Saudi Arabia, there’s all the different opposition groups, there’s the Kurds. We could go on and on. That’s part of the complexity of this.

One of the things about the force disposition right now is the way the Turks have more or less inserted themselves between the two Kurdish factions that might have united and presented Turkey with a real problem, a united Kurdistan, if you will, all the way, possibly, from Iraq across to Iran and Syria, and prevented that from happening, prevented the unification of the Kurds. At least that’s the way I’ve been briefed on the force lay-down. That’s just one of the complications.

Another complication, of course, is Russia’s got to talk Tehran into the deal in terms of what it means for Iran and Hezbollah and other aspects of Iranian interests.

At the same time, you’ve got to convince the Saudis, Qataris, and others that they need to stop arming the various groups in Syria, or at least adhere to the ceasefire and talk those groups into doing it too. I’m not sure that’s possible.

It’s just there are so many interests here. And most Americans don’t understand the interests of the Russians here. This is their last bastion of Middle East territory, this is their last, if you will, place in this critical region of the world where they can sit, as it were. You know the United States is in Bahrain, it’s in Oman, it’s in Egypt, it’s an Qatar, it’s in Saudi Arabia. The United States is everywhere. Russia has no strategic outpost but Syria. So I would say that the strategic interest of Moscow in remaining at that outpost, and therefore having to come to some accommodation with Bashar al-Assad’s resumption in power, is paramount for them.

So if you can bring all those interests that I’ve just briefly enumerated together and get them to stop and to sit down and convince the opposition groups to stop, and at the same time continue your prosecution of the war against those who are inimical to your interests–I think most interests that I’ve just enumerated–Daesh, ISIL, ISIS, whatever you want to call it, and whatever al-Qaeda is at the moment–you’re welcome to it, but that’s a feat of diplomacy probably beyond the possible.

PERIES: And talking about a feat of diplomacy, you’ve been at the table when these kinds of negotiations take place, especially with the U.S. and Russia. How do these processes go? And what happens if one side fails to sort of bring their side of allied forces together in order to comply with it?

WILKERSON: I think you have a basic congruence of interest in stopping this in most of the major powers, even, I would say, Ankara, ultimately. And you certainly have a different relationship between Moscow and Ankara right now than the one you had before when we were dealing with the shootdown of the Russian aircraft and so forth. So I think you have that. And I think you have a desire on all those major players’ parts to stop this conflict.

But their influence on the proxies or the people who are actually conducting the conflict is whimsical at best and fleeting at worst. And their ability to back off the conflict, if that is the case, is very difficult to ascertain. I mean, if the groups that Moscow’s backing–Assad, principally, and the government, such as it is now–suddenly decides that it doesn’t like the arrangements, then it’s not going to be there and Russia’s probably going to follow it.

By the same token, if the groups that the Turks are dealing with and that the Turks are, as I indicated, keeping apart right now, different groups of Kurds, suddenly become able to be a fly in the ointment of whatever Turkey might agree to, that’s a problem.

You also have the various people who are supporting, for one reason or another, the different groups battling Assad and who from the outset of this have said it is absolutely essential for their interests that Assad go.

Again, it’s extremely difficult to imagine sitting down at a table and getting anything other than pro forma agreement from the people who want to agree. And then they go back and speak to the various parties that are in some way allied with them, and either they get acquiescence on Monday and a complete disruption of that acquiescence on Tuesday or they get adamantine, stony faces looking at them like, “Are you kidding me? I’m not about to do that.”

And then what do they do? You go back to the negotiating table again and say, well, I went back and presented the deal that we achieved to my proxies, and while they were for it when I was negotiating, they aren’t for it now. And you see that, of course, in the resumption of hostilities. It’s an incredibly difficult negotiating business, with so many different players.

PERIES: In terms of the public and international coverage of the negotiations, you don’t see Iran’s role articulated here whatsoever. Give us a sense of what that might be. And obviously that is partly who the Russians are negotiating on behalf of.

WILKERSON: Right. Well, the Russians had a little bit of a problem with Iranian domestic response to their alleged and reported use of base in Iran for bombing. Of course, they had been using it in refueling and refitting and so forth all along, but when it became public in an announcement, they had a little bit of a problem with it. They had to retract some of the statements about the more permanent nature of that base, because Iran has got a history with Russia, and Russia with Iran, and it’s not necessarily a positive history.

Nonetheless, Iran’s interest and Russia’s interest with regard to keeping Bashar al-Assad in place are congruent, and largely because I think Iran sees Syria as a bulwark that’s on its side, so to speak, against other forces in the region that aren’t. It also sees Syria as essential to the logistic line of communications it maintains with Hezbollah, particularly those forces that are in Lebanon and opposing Israel. And so if Syria goes away suddenly or becomes a state that is not tending towards Iran or working with Iran, then that goes away too, and there aren’t a whole lot of ways to replace that.

So their interests, Moscow and Tehran, are congruent right now, but they can widely diverge pretty quickly, as just that little trivial example of the Iranian people’s reaction to a Russian base on Iranian soil demonstrates.

By the same token, retaining Assad in power I think, at least in the interim sense, is probably a sine qua non for both Tehran and Moscow, but it’s not something that at the negotiating table I think they would fall over their sword about. That is to say, if you worked out an agreement where Assad stayed in power for a while and then perhaps was eased out and some other, perhaps more Democratic government replaced him, you could probably sell that to Tehran and you could probably sell that to Moscow. But would you be able to sell that to some of the opposition groups, some of which see Syria as the right place for things like happened in Afghanistan? And I’m talking about certain elements of the al-Nusra Front, certainly al-Qaeda, and of course ISIL and Daesh, whatever you want to call them.

So this is an extremely difficult mess to wade into if you’re a diplomat and you’re representing any of the major power partners and you’re trying to achieve a congruence that’s necessary at least to stop the shooting and to start doing some of the kind of humanitarian work that you need to do desperately to help this besieged population.

I’ll just point out one other thing, Sharmini. This is not something to be neglected in this whole thing. And we want to neglect it–in the United States we do not want to talk about it. A lot of what’s going on in Syria, indirectly or directly, has impact on Israel. And I think what the Israeli leadership is thinking right now is that the longer this war goes on, the safer Israel is, because it can do as Netanyahu has said, for example, in regard to the Golan Heights: they’re ours forever, we’re never going to give them up, and anything else we can grab away from Syria while this turmoil is going on is ours, too, to increase the distance an enemy would have to come to invade Israel. And at the same time, all these powers are occupied killing one another, as it were, and so they can’t take on Israel. So this is a direct result of what’s going on in Syria right now is this feeling of a better security posture for Israel.

I beg to differ. I think strategically this is dynamite for Israel, that we’re looking at the potential for things to start falling apart for Israel quickly and dynamically and dramatically, and for the United States to have some really serious choices to make about this. So that’s another element we don’t like to talk about much in the United States, but it is intrinsic to this situation, and certainly to an ultimate solution to it.

PERIES: Right. Speaking of Israel, our next-week segment with Larry Wilkerson will be Israel, and we’re going to take apart the leadership struggle that’s going on in Israel, in addition to how it is going to affect the region, not to mention Palestine.

Thanks so much for joining us, Larry.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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