The immediate prospect for significant improvement in U.S.-Russia relations now depends on something tangible: Will the forces that sabotaged previous ceasefire agreements in Syria succeed in doing so again, all the better to keep alive the “regime change” dreams of the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists?
Or will President Trump succeed where President Obama failed by bringing the U.S. military and intelligence bureaucracies into line behind a cease-fire rather than allowing insubordination to win out?
These are truly life-or-death questions for the Syrian people and could have profound repercussions across Europe, which has been destabilized by the flood of refugees fleeing the horrific violence in the six-year proxy war that has ripped Syria apart.
But you would have little inkling of this important priority from the large page-one headlines Saturday morning in the US mainstream media, which continued its long obsession with the more ephemeral question of whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would confess to the sin of “interference” in the 2016 US election and promise to repent.
Thus, the headlines: “Trump, Putin talk election interference” (Washington Post) and “Trump asks Putin About Meddling During Election” (New York Times). There was also the expected harrumphing from commentators on CNN and MSNBC when Putin dared to deny that Russia had interfered.
In both the big newspapers and on cable news shows, the potential for a ceasefire in southern Syria – set to go into effect on Sunday – got decidedly second billing.
Yet, the key to Putin’s assessment of Donald Trump is whether the US President is strong enough to make the mutually agreed-upon ceasefire stick. As Putin is well aware, to do so Trump will have to take on the same “deep-state” forces that cheerily scuttled similar agreements in the past. In other words, the actuarial tables for this cease-fire are not good; long life for the agreement will take something just short of a miracle.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will have to face down hardliners in both the Pentagon and CIA. Tillerson probably expects that Defense Secretary James “Mad-Dog” Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo will cooperate by ordering their troops and operatives inside Syria to restrain the U.S.-backed “moderate rebels.”
But it remains to be seen if Mattis and Pompeo can control the forces their agencies have unleashed in Syria. If recent history is any guide, it would be folly to rule out another “accidental” US bombing of Syrian government troops or a well-publicized “chemical attack” or some other senseless “war crime” that social media and mainstream media will immediately blame on President Bashar al-Assad.
Last fall’s limited ceasefire in Syria, painstakingly worked out over 11 months by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and approved personally by Presidents Obama and Putin, lasted…