In 2013, Dr. Fiona Hill, who was recently appointed as senior director for European and Russian Affairs in Donald Trump’s National Security Council, co-authored a book, entitled, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. Its central thesis was that Russian President Vladimir Putin retains the characteristics and habits of the institution in which his career began and in which he long served: the KGB, the intelligence apparatus of the now defunct Soviet Union.
KGB training would impart an understanding of how to use force effectively in nuanced, subtle, and limited ways: somewhat like judo—in which Putin has a black belt. One example: in September 1999, four apartment blocks were bombed in four Russian cities, killing nearly 300 people. The bombings, blamed on Chechens, created a climate of fear that helped Putin, then a little-known figure, get elected president.
Several Russian figures, as well as Western scholars, maintain the attacks were a “false flag” operation, carried out by the FSB, the KGB’s successor organization, for the purpose of helping to secure Putin’s election. Other analysts disagree, but only the most naive would argue it was impossible Putin or the FSB would do something like that.
As Hill suggested, “Many in the West underestimated Putin’s willingness to fight, for as long and as hard (and as dirty) as he needs to, to achieve his goals. [Putin] will use all methods available, and he will be ruthless.”
Putin seems to have exploited a terrible humanitarian tragedy and a serious political problem—Syria’s six-year-old civil war—to confound several key parties. They include the US, as well as its partner force in Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), as this author has written.
They also include Israel. Russian officials surprised the Pentagon on Friday when they announced planes from the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS) would be barred from the four de-escalation zones in Syria, as established by the latest round of the Astana peace talks.
On Saturday, General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called his Russian counterpart. It is unclear what, if anything, their conversation resolved.
A terse US statement issued after their discussion noted the two men had “discussed the Astana agreement” and “affirmed their commitment to deconflicting operations in Syria,” while they “agreed to maintain regular contact.”
The same ban on flights in the de-escalation zones would apply to others, including Israel.
When Israel sees activity in Syria it regards as threatening, it simply bombs the danger. Will Israel still be able to do so? Even if that activity occurs in one of the de-escalation zones?
One such zone lies in southern Syria and includes parts of Quneitra Governorate, which borders the Golan Heights.
Until now, Israel has seen the presence of the rebels there as a buffer against Iran and Hezbollah. Will that buffer disappear?
And which party will enforce the cease-fire in Quneitra? What if Iran sends troops? Or Hezbollah is used for that purpose?
Tensions between Hezbollah and Israel have led to war in the past. Israel is already uneasy with Hezbollah’s enhanced status in Lebanon.
What would Israel do, if Hezbollah also became ensconced in Quneitra? The de-escalation zones have the potential to facilitate a dangerous build-up of weapons and hostile forces alongside another Israeli frontier.
To a lesser extent, Jordan faces similar risks. The de-escalation zone in southern Syria includes part of Dara’a Governorate, which borders Jordan. Which party will enforce the cease-fire there?
Presumably, Amman does not want to see Iranian forces, or Hezbollah, next door. However, the Russian proposal also allows for other countries to join in guaranteeing the cease-fire. Possibly, Jordan might opt to do so, rather than see hostile troops on its border.
The Syrian opposition has criticized the zones as an attempt to partition the country, and the Russian proposal is unlikely to be any more successful than past efforts to secure a cease-fire.
Indeed, Dr. Mark Kramer, Director of Harvard University’s Project on Cold War Studies, denounced it as a “cynical ploy.”
However, it certainly has the potential to cause serious problems for the US and its allies. But, then, that is how a clever KGB agent would operate: wrap a poison pill in a package of seemingly good intentions.
Laurie Mylroie is a Washington, DC correspondent for Kurdistan24.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan24.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany