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Putin's Syria Victory

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Баку, 15 февраля 2016 – Newtimes.az

President Obama has spent five years insisting that there is no military solution to the Syrian civil war. To judge by the "cessation of hostilities'' announced Friday in Munich, Vladimir Putin is about to prove him wrong.

In theory the cease-fire that Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will bring a partial end to the fighting in a week and allow expanded humanitarian aid into the country. This is supposed to be followed by a resumption of peace talks, which collapsed this month as Bashar Assad’s regime backed by Russian warplanes pressed an offensive against moderate Syrian rebels.

In practice, however, this looks like another Russian victory. Russian planes have intensified their bombing of Aleppo, forcing thousands of civilians to flee to the Turkish border through the only corridor that remains beyond Mr. Assad’s control. Mr. Lavrov says the week delay is needed to sort out the "modalities'' of the cease-fire, but the real reason is to give the regime time to complete Aleppo’s encirclement.

The cease-fire explicitly excludes attacks on Islamic State (ISIS) and the al Qaeda-backed Nusra Front. This would make sense if the Kremlin weren’t falsely claiming that its targets are "terrorists'' even as it neglects to attack ISIS. Expect the charade to go on until Mr. Putin achieves his military and strategic goals.

The fall of Aleppo and other rebel enclaves in western Syria will allow Mr. Assad to consolidate his grip on the most fertile and populated part of the country. Next month’s negotiations can then "freeze'' the conflict in place, a tactic Russia used to its advantage after its invasion of Georgia in 2008 and last year’s Minsk agreement over eastern Ukraine. ISIS can be dealt with later, while Mr. Assad can count on U.S. air strikes to degrade ISIS’s capabilities as he deals with his more immediate enemies.

This isn’t the Russian "quagmire'' Mr. Obama predicted last year when Moscow stepped into Syria. Mr. Putin has consolidated his strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean with a tough but limited military intervention and minimal casualties. He has strengthened ties to Tehran. He has shown the Muslim world that he’s the power to be reckoned with, which is why Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have backed away from their opposition to Mr. Putin’s gambit.

The Russian has also gained diplomatic leverage that he’ll use to gain further concessions from the U.S. and Europe. This will likely start, but not end, with sanctions relief as Europe and the U.S. gradually acquiesce to his Ukrainian annexations. Mr. Obama will gladly make this trade since the "cease-fire'' will ease what had been growing media criticism in the U.S. of his Syrian abdications.

The next U.S. President will inherit the wreckage. This includes the betrayal of the Free Syrian Army and the example it sets for other potential U.S. allies; the non-defeat of ISIS; the loss of credibility with traditional allies in Jerusalem, Riyadh and Cairo; Russia’s renewed influence in the region; the improbable victory of a murderous dictator who Mr. Obama once insisted had to "step aside''; and the consolidation of an Iranian crescent from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut.

Add to that the killing of more than 250,000 Syrians and the greatest refugee crisis since the end of World War II, and this is some record. Mr. Obama might call it success, but George Orwell would have used a different term.

The Wall Street Journal

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