America's pragmatic approach has created a 'ceasefire' that has no hope of stopping the violence in Syria
Published 13/02/2016 | 02:30
The Chinese version of the phrase "to call black white" is "to call a horse a deer". It comes from the legend of an emperor who tested the loyalty of his ministers by pointing to his horse, calling it a deer. If the minister corrected him, he had to be disposed of.
The world overnight welcomed the latest agreement to cease fire in Syria. Well, if this is a ceasefire deal, a horse is a deer. Even by the topsy-turvy diplomatic standards set by the war in the Syria, this "ceasefire" is Alice through the looking glass.
The ceasefire terms were agreed by a range of international powers that did not include any Syrians. That in itself might give us pause for thought.
Then the one thing that none of those involved made clear was that it doesn't apply to any of them. All the foreign actors participating in the war can carry on bombing away at will. This is because, under the terms of a UN resolution passed by the security council last month, terrorist groups are excluded from any ceasefire. There is no obligation to stop fighting Isil, the local al-Qa'ida faction Jabhat al-Nusra, or other UN-designated terrorist groups.
On the face of it, this is reasonable enough. We all want to get rid of these terrorists. But since all foreign intervention in Syria has been carried out under the pretext of fighting terrorism, all the international actors can therefore carry on bombing.
The US says it is bombing Isil. Russia says it is bombing both Isil, al-Qa'ida and other terrorists: but even if we take that at face value, it is an unfortunate fact that the al-Qa'ida brigades it is targeting are in the same parts of Syria as the non-terrorist "rebels" whose forces are being hammered by the regime.
Neither Russia nor the United States - or the other participants - have given any indication they will halt air raids. On the ground, Iran, another major player, also says it is "targeting terrorists". It has Revolutionary Guard troops and a number of militias fighting for the Assad regime under its command in Syria. They are also fighting in areas where there happen to be Jabhat al-Nusra militants, as well as rebels, so there is no onus on them to cease fire either.
The regime has said all along that it is fighting terrorists and, as above, where it has major fronts against the "moderate rebels", there are also Jabhat al-Nusra factions, sometimes fighting alongside them.
Isil and Jabhat al-Nusra are also excluded from the terms of the ceasefire. It's not that we want them to carry on fighting, but even the most hawkish negotiator would acknowledge the right of an enemy to carry on fighting if he has been excluded from the opportunity to make peace.
There are some groups, allied to Jabhat al-Nusra, whose status under this deal remains disputed.
So that leaves just one faction that everyone agrees is going to be obliged to actually cease fire under the terms of this deal: the "moderate rebels". This means that on the ground, the only factions that have not been accused of carrying out war crimes on civilians in this war are the only ones now obliged to lay down their weapons.
At a practical level, this means all the fronts fighting the regime and its allies in Syria will be taken over by Isil, al-Qa'ida and their associated sub-groups. This is not, presumably, a desired outcome of western policy.
It is, however, a natural outcome of a particular aspect of US foreign policy. John Kerry, backed by President Obama, has pursued in the Middle East a pragmatic approach, that of "working with people who we can work with". Mr Obama believes you cannot force monsters to behave well; rather, you negotiate with people who are prepared to negotiate with you in the hope that they will ultimately start to observe international norms.
The ceasefire deal is the result of this. Its terms apply to the people Mr Kerry can "work with" - the internationally recognised opposition, and factions loyal to it.
But the people America cannot work with - and America itself - can just carry on killing. This is not a ceasefire, it's a deer.