- - Sunday, May 14, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Vladimir Putin’s Russia continues to be the best example of a nation whose military power is magnified beyond reality by the perceptions it workers deftly to create. Two examples of that deftness were displayed by a massive military parade last week and, the week before that, by Mr. Putin’s proposal to stop the war in Syria.

The Soviet-like Victory Day parade, celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany featured about 10,000 soldiers who paraded before a smiling Mr. Putin, as did reportedly 114 units of military equipment, including ballistic missiles and tanks.

The parade even included an element from the new “Yunarmia,” reportedly an organization of more than 30,000 school children nicknamed “Putin’s Youth Army,” strikingly similar to Komsomol, the Soviet equivalent. It was the sort of display of military might that would turn North Korea’s Kim Jong-un green with envy.

On May 3, Russia, Iran and Turkey signed an agreement purporting to set the terms of at least a temporary peace between the belligerents in the Syrian war, now in its seventh year.

The agreement, as reported by the Middle East Media Research Institute is signed by Russia, Iran and Turkey as “guarantors” of Syrian (i.e., the Assad regime’s) sovereignty. It establishes four “de-confliction” zones in western and northern Syria and promises humanitarian aid within the zones. It also pledges to continue the fight against ISIS, which none of the signers has taken seriously before.

The agreement results from a conference between the signers and reportedly, some rebel groups, in March. The United States was excluded from that conference and is not a signatory nation.

The agreement is slightly strange in several ways. First, the fact that Syria itself didn’t sign the agreement means that the Assad regime is no longer a factor in the Syrian war. Second, it means that Russia and Iran now control Syria as a joint satrapy. Third, it means that Turkey is now officially an ally of Russia and Iran as well as Bashar Assad’s terrorist regime.

The three nations signing the agreement have, since the Syrian war began, been rewarded by the strategic decisions they have made. The war began as a civil war between various rebel forces and the government of Syria’s dictator, Mr. Assad. A few years ago, Russia and Iran used the pretext of protecting Mr. Assad to establish a strategic foothold both on the western side of the Middle East.

The success is easily measured. Russia, for example, has two permanent bases — a naval base at Tartus and an air force base near Latakia. The Iranian military presence is substantial, obviating the need for announced acquisitions of territory as the Russians have made.

Just as important is their eager acceptance of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey into their autocracy club. Turkey, in recent weeks, has attacked U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria. By becoming a signatory of the agreement and a guarantor of Syria’s sovereignty, Mr. Erdogan has allied himself with America’s — and NATO’s — enemies and adversaries.

The Russia-Iran-Turkey alliance and its May 3 agreement make no mention of and no accommodation to U.S. forces engaged against ISIS in the air and on the ground in Syria. The Trump administration is now reportedly reviewing the fact accompli.

Defense Secretary James Mattis, attending a Copenhagen meeting on efforts to destroy ISIS, said that we were reviewing the Russia-Iran-Turkey plan and that the “devils were in the details.”

One of Mr. Mattis’ devilish details is how the no-fly zones would be enforced. He hasn’t said whether our forces would abide the restrictions even if they limited anti-ISIS operations. On May 3, announcing the plan, Mr. Putin said, “We as guarantors — Turkey, Iran, Russia — will do everything for this to work.”

Like almost everything Mr. Putin says, that’s open to several interpretations. One is that Russian and Iranian aircraft would intercept and possibly even attack US aircraft operating in Syria. Another, more likely, is that they might interfere, demanding we ask for clearance on individual missions entering the no-fly area.

One of the most striking elements of this plan is that it is among parties that have no incentive to actually end the war.

Russia and Iran want to stamp out the forces trying to topple Mr. Assad, not leave them possessing the outskirts of Damascus. Mr. Erdogan, flush from the enhanced power he was granted by the recent referendum, isn’t going to stop his attacks against the Kurdish forces we support.

At this point, America’s only interest in the Syria war is to destroy ISIS forces in Syria and not allow them to escape to neighboring nations. The city of Raqqa, which ISIS claims as its capital, has been under siege by U.S. and Kurdish forces for months. When it falls, there is no reason for us to stay in Syria.

The May 3 peace plan is no such thing. It won’t end the war in Syria, and may not even pause it. Most significantly, it’s a sort of parade, just like the Victory Day parade in Moscow, advertising Russian and Iranian might in the Middle East. And that of their newest ally, Turkey.

That agreement reorders the Middle East puzzle pieces, and not to our advantage.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of five books including “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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