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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Trudy Rubin: Syrian mess awaits next president

Trudy Rubin

As the 2016 campaign grows ever more grotesque, consider this: The next U.S. president will still be confronting an Islamic State caliphate in Syria and Iraq when he or she takes office.

Hint: “Bomb the (bleep) out of them” (the mantra for you-know-who, as well as his Texas opponent) won’t suffice to destroy the jihadis. Even if a serious candidate wins, the new president will still face an unholy Islamic State mess.

Here are three key things about the struggle for Syria that any presidential wannabe should keep in mind:

Contrary to popular wisdom, the future of Syria and the fractured Mideast will be shaped on the battlefield, not at the negotiating table.

Not because negotiations are a bad thing – the current “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, cobbled together by Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, is critical for getting relief supplies into besieged areas where people are starving.

But further talks on a real cease-fire and a Syrian transition plan will merely give Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad a chance to cement the military gains they’ve made since Russian advisers and planes poured into the country. Those military advances give Assad and Vladimir Putin all the negotiating cards.

“Russia is already dictating the terms,” says Jennifer Cafarella, co-author of the Institute for the Study of War’s very credible 90-day forecast of what lies ahead for Syria. “They engaged in the negotiating process to preserve the (Assad) regime. They have no incentives to cut a deal that gives the Syrian opposition any concessions.”

That’s because regime forces, backed by Russian air power and Iranian-supplied militia troops, have solidified Assad’s once-faltering hold on Syria’s coast and western spine and surrounded the rebel-held neighborhoods of Aleppo. “Once they take Aleppo they will basically have what they want,” says Smith College’s Steven Heydemann, a leading Syria expert. “If Aleppo is emptied out, the rebels will have almost nothing.”

Indeed, Putin will use the threat of the continuing refugee tsunami as a cudgel to pressure the West – even as Russia exploits cease-fire loopholes to keep bombing. A refugee crisis that brings down the European Union is Putin’s wildest dream, says Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Iraq, “so I expect he will do everything he can to increase the refugee flow.”

As the price for easing that flow, Putin will likely demand a “transition” formula that guarantees Assad’s retention of power and removes Western economic sanctions on Moscow.

Don’t buy the mantra that a Russian/Assad victory will stabilize Syria.

That’s the Russian narrative, calling on the international community to recognize an Assad regime as the only hope for stability and join Moscow in battling the Islamic State. This narrative is deceptive. “Destroying ISIS is not one of the top Russian objectives,” says Cafarella, using another name for the Islamic State. Russian airstrikes have mainly targeted the non-jihadi Syrian opposition, not the Islamic State. Meantime, Moscow knows the Syrian army doesn’t have the manpower to take and hold Raqqa city, the seat of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate.

Rather than defeat the jihadis, Putin’s manipulations will increase their threat by radicalizing embittered rebels, who will bolster the Islamic State in Syria or elsewhere and infiltrate the refugees flooding into Europe.

Meantime, the Russian leader’s machinations will make it harder for the U.S.-led coalition to strategize against the Islamic State. Example: Putin is egging on Syrian Kurds – the main anti-Islamic State ground force that Washington backs with airstrikes – to seize a strip of territory along the Turkish border. This infuriates Turkey, which fears it will inspire its own Kurdish rebels. It also drives a wedge between NATO partners Ankara and Washington.

One thing you have to say about Putin: Few thought he could manipulate the Syrian mess so well and play on Western desperation with such ease.

At this point, the de facto partition of Syria may be the best of the horrible options on the negotiating table. But it’s probably too late for such an option to stop the bloodshed and end the war.

The thinking behind such a plan: Given Russia’s backing for Assad, there’s no way he’ll give up power. So the only way to stop the suffering and take on the Islamic State would be to negotiate protected zones in areas still held by Sunni rebels. Then the West could work with non-jihadi Sunnis to take down the Islamic State caliphate in the east.

But at this point, the Russians and Assad can get de facto partition – along lines they carve out by force – without negotiating any concessions to Sunni opponents. And with Russian planes in the air, Moscow knows the U.S.-led coalition won’t create such protected zones by military means.

So Putin is in the driver’s seat. If he were farsighted, he might recognize the wisdom of throwing the Sunnis some crumbs, in hopes of ending the fighting. But that doesn’t look likely.

“It certainly isn’t over,” Crocker told me sadly. “Nowhere close. The problem is going to get a lot worse for a whole lot longer.”

If the nascent cease-fire collapses, it’s hard to see what Plan B the administration can come up with. The whole Syria mess seems likely to land front and center on the next president’s desk.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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