Monthly Archives: December 2016

Kerry’s words and the UN vote don’t help Palestinians

The sudden flurry of diplomatic activity on issues regarding Israel and the Palestinians has been full of high-minded, and entirely correct, principles. Unfortunately, its practical consequences are unlikely to do anybody any good.

United States secretary of state John Kerry’s speech on Wednesday was, perhaps, the most incisive, honest and serious speech ever on this issue by a senior American official. If it had been made three years ago – and backed up by real policies with significant consequences to all parties for non-compliance – it would have surely been historic.

But delivered a few days before Mr Kerry and president Barack Obama leave the international stage for good, it was merely a rhetorical exercise, unconnected to actual statecraft. Indeed, it suggests that the Obama administration has, for years, had a very sophisticated and detailed grasp of the nature and scope of the threat facing a two-state solution – which remains the only viable formula for peace – but essentially chose not to do much.

This cry from the heart at the very end of the administration might be emotionally satisfying for Mr Kerry, but it only serves to underscore the depth of his failure as secretary of state, and that of his administration, to do anything practical to salvage the situation. Screaming “Troy is burning” after the wooden horse has been rolled into the city gates is pointless. And it’s especially galling now that it’s clear that they knew the real dangers all along but just weren’t willing to pay the political price of seriously trying to alter the equation.

The recent United Nations Security Council resolution reiterating the illegality of Israeli settlement activities was similarly impeccably correct on legal, moral and abstract political registers. And it’s certainly good that Israelis are put on notice that the world unanimously rejects its effort to colonise occupied territories in violation of clearcut international law.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies have clearly been operating under the assumption that the world will eventually shrug and move on if Israel continues to press forward its claims and create facts on the ground. The unanimous UN vote – and the American abstention is really a “yes” given that permanent member “no” votes are vetoes – puts the Israelis on notice that this hasn’t happened and isn’t about to.

Yes, the resolution calls Israel’s bluff when it absurdly acts as if there is a movable Israel that springs up wherever a settler happens to set foot, while everywhere else is an undifferentiated, to be determined, occupation. And, yes, it calls Mr Netanyahu’s bluff of pretending to be in favour of a two-state solution rhetorically while pursuing policies that plainly sabotage, and indeed make a mockery of, that outcome in reality.

These are useful rhetorical and debating points.

But just because the resolution puts Israel in a difficult spot that doesn’t mean Palestinians emerge as winners. The idea that it opens serious new international legal prospects is a chimera. Worse, any price Israel extracts will be borne entirely by Palestinians and not by the 14 states that voted for the resolution or Washington, which abstained.

Israel builds and expands settlements no matter what, but this resolution will undoubtedly lead to even more aggressive building than usual. And Israel may take other retaliatory measures, all of them aimed at Palestinians, who alone are vulnerable to Israeli retaliation.

Moreover, both the UN resolution and Mr Kerry’s speech will almost certainly serve to push Palestinians away from the incoming Donald Trump administration, with which they must have as cordial relations as possible. Mr Netanyahu clearly hopes they will bring him closer to Mr Trump, and seems to have deliberately exacerbated tensions with the Obama administration to promote that goal.

Mr Netanyahu may be greatly disappointed by the actual policies of a Trump administration. But even if Mr Trump gives him carte blanche, that could put Mr Netanyahu in the impossible situation of no longer being able to tell settlers that he must show restraint because of Washington, leaving him at their mercy.

Certainly events seem to be advancing the day when Mr Netanyahu must finally choose between supporting settlement expansion and supporting peace, because, as Mr Kerry explained, these are ultimately incompatible.

But Palestinians now face increased settlement activity and Israeli retaliation, and are already being pushed away from the incoming American administration. That’s a prohibitive practical price for a purely symbolic reiteration of international rejection of settlements.

The only thing really accomplished in recent days is an increase of tensions all around, and particularly between Israel and the Palestinians. Nothing much useful can be accomplished without bringing those two parties closer together, and anything that pushes them even further apart – as well as both away from the United States – is ultimately charging headlong in the wrong direction.

Moving US Embassy to Jerusalem would be Disastrous, Especially for Israel

Want a Third Intifada? Go Ahead and Move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem

Among the many alarming ways in which President-elect Donald Trump might upend traditional American foreign policy, one of the most immediate and troubling concerns his pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Other successful presidential candidates, most notably Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, made the same promise, only, once inaugurated, to emulate all of their predecessors by invoking the executive waiver to the 1995 congressional mandate to relocate the embassy.

Trump, however, appears less inclined than either of them to back away from the idea. What awaits is a potentially colossal blunder — not just for Palestinians, but for America’s diplomatic reputation and standing, and also for Israel’s national security.

Trump’s persistence in giving the impression that he really does intend to move the embassy once in office seems to be part of a broader shift his administration is preparing to make toward Israel’s extreme right. His ambassador nominee, attorney David Friedman, who has counseled Trump in past bankruptcy proceedings, has a long history of extreme statements on the conflict and views wholly out of sync with both international law and long-standing U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine. Friedman strongly supports aggressive settlement activity and categorically opposes a two-state solution, although, like most such advocates, he carefully avoids outlining what sort of political arrangement, precisely, he would like to see replace it. This is presumably because this vision constitutes something unspeakable in polite diplomacy — a permanent apartheid system complete with “self-ruling” Palestinian Bantustans in a de facto greater Israel that controls most of the land of the occupied territories without taking responsibility for most of its population. All of Friedman’s public statements express a position of maximal Jewish nationalism (he always uses the word “we” to describe Jewish Israelis), with virtually no concessions to Palestinian human or national rights or international laws or norms of conduct.

This appointment is troubling enough, assuming the Senate confirms Friedman (which it shouldn’t but may well do). Trump may be rewarding a loyal subordinate with a cherished appointment in a manner that plays fast and loose with policy and political realities but that could still be manageable because ambassadors don’t make policy. It’s going to be extremely difficult for Friedman, as U.S. ambassador to Israel, to have a reasonable relationship with anyone other than the Jewish Israeli ultra-right, but as long as he is merely the American representative, the actual policy damage could and should be limited and reversible.

The same cannot be said for the idea of moving the embassy to Jerusalem. Ever since Congress mandated the move in 1995, every president, including those who vowed to relocate the embassy, has invoked an executive waiver holding that it is not in the American national interest at the moment. Since 1947, the international community has, virtually unanimously, regarded Jerusalem as a corpus separatum whose future and precise political status must be determined through negotiations between Israel and the Arabs, particularly the Palestinians.

Because of the unanimous international consensus regarding the status of Jerusalem, no international embassies to Israel are currently located in the city, and almost all are in Tel Aviv. This has always been true of the United States and other major powers, although 24 countries did once have embassies in or near West Jerusalem. However, after Israel’s purported annexation of this occupied territory, in violation, as the U.N. Security Council has repeatedly pointed out, of “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war,” these missions were eventually all relocated. Should the United States move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, therefore, it would be taking the lead in abrogating an international consensus that has held for almost 70 years.

Not only would Washington be abandoning, and effectively trashing, the international consensus it played a leading role in building and maintaining over decades — as well as effectively discarding the idea that territory can’t be acquired militarily as stipulated by the U.N. charter — the United States would also be abandoning any hope of serving as an honest broker or effective negotiator between Israel and the Palestinians in the foreseeable future. Combined with the appointment of Friedman, it would send a very strong message to the Palestinians that Washington is no longer interested in securing a realistic or viable two-state solution, which has been the bedrock of American policy for decades.

The Palestinian response on the ground is hard to predict. But the potential for an explosion of outrage, and possibly violence, is obviously very great. Jerusalem is the most sensitive issue between Israelis and Palestinians, as the outbreak of the Second Intifada and other repeated instances in which it has served as a uniquely potent flash point have illustrated. Jerusalem brings together religious, nationalistic, symbolic, and ethnic sensibilities in a singularly powerful and dangerous mix. If Palestinians conclude that their future in what they consider to be their capital is being effectively foreclosed by American policy, an outraged, and even violent, response in the form of a spontaneous, or possibly even organized, uprising is extremely plausible — perhaps even inevitable, if not immediately.

For Israel, the benefits of a Jerusalem-based U.S. Embassy would be entirely symbolic, while the costs could be significant and substantial. Not only could the Israelis end up dealing with a new eruption of violence and unrest directly linked to the move; it could severely damage Israel’s regional posture and diplomatic gains with key Arab states. The embassy move would certainly violate the spirit, if not the letter, of Israel’s Washington-brokered peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and the reaction of these countries is hard to predict but unlikely to be insignificant. If nothing else, domestic political pressure would virtually guarantee that Cairo and Amman find some way of expressing their extreme discomfort, and broader cooperation with Israel will become far more difficult for both of them.

This applies even more to the Gulf Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, which have entered into a cautious, politically sensitive, and positive re-evaluation of their relations with Israel in light of the shared perception of Iran as an overarching regional threat. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies have been exultant about the quiet progress that has been made with these Arab countries because of shared anxiety about Tehran’s agenda, the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem would likely prove a massive complication, if not a complete end, to these developments.

Along with other members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the leading Gulf Arab states would almost certainly feel it necessary to practically demonstrate their objections to the relocation of the U.S. Embassy by finding some means of reasserting Palestinian, and even broader Christian and Muslim, claims on Jerusalem — and the most likely fallout would be a curtailment of security cooperation with Israel on matters concerning Iran’s nefarious activities in the Middle East. Adding such an additional layer of tension between Israel and the Arab states would be an enormous gift to Tehran and its regional alliance.

Moreover, for Palestinian diplomacy, the lesson will be all too clear: Israel preaches the pointlessness of purely symbolic gestures regarding national morale on the Palestinian side but wholeheartedly embraces them when it comes to issues such as Jerusalem. It will be impossible for Israel and America, if the U.S. Embassy is moved to Jerusalem, to successfully lecture the Palestine Liberation Organization about how pointless or quixotic purely symbolic moves at the United Nations and other international organizations and forums might be on the grounds that nominal gains with practical costs are foolish. Both the United States and Israel will have demonstrated that they don’t believe that at all and instead embrace symbolic moves that come at high costs when it suits them. There’s almost no question the Palestinians will take it as a virtual mandate to charge forward in international forms, ratcheting up as many symbolic victories as possible with a similar disregard for the practical consequences.

Israel’s national security establishment almost certainly understands these dangers, and it’s clear that much of it has and will be quietly counseling against any dramatic move to relocate the U.S. Embassy. Some half measures are possible: Building could be initiated on a site intended for a future U.S. Embassy but without much urgency and without actually relocating diplomats. Other gestures, short of a calamitous actual relocation, are also possible, as is the most likely and advisable course: the repetition of what other presidents have done in the past, which is abandon the campaign promise because it is bad for American policy, very dangerous for Israel’s national security, devastating to prospects for peace, and a gift to Iran and other nefarious actors.

Trump may have committed to moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel, but given how flexible he has proved to be on a huge variety of issues throughout his campaign and pre-inaugural interregnum, reversing course shouldn’t be particularly difficult. But it requires that someone first carefully inform him of the real costs at stake. And, sadly, his nominee for ambassador to Israel means there’s one less person inclined, or able, to do just that.

Egypt-GCC Partnership: Bedrock of Regional Security Despite Fissures

To view the paper in full, click here

Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries have a complex, but indispensable, diplomatic, military, and political partnership in the contemporary world. Egypt represents the epicenter of the Arab population – as by far the most human resource-rich Arab country – and is a traditional cultural powerhouse in the Arab world at both the intellectual and popular levels. It is also, arguably, the sole contemporary Arab country that is an ancient and relatively homogeneous nation-state with borders that have been recognized for many centuries. The Gulf countries contain much of the mineral and financial wealth of the Arab world, and have their own important cultural and religious influences, some of them traditional as with Saudi Arabia’s religious role because of its geography, and some of it more newfound, bound up with the wealth and growth of the Gulf states.

Yet even within this spirit of cooperation, whereby Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have strongly moved to support the Egyptian economy and promote the post-Muslim Brotherhood government led by the former general, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, there remains an undercurrent of competition for influence within the Sunni Arab world and beyond. Whatever their quiet reservations, the Gulf countries will almost certainly continue to regard Egypt as essentially “too big to fail” and Egypt will continue to regard the Gulf countries as indispensable partners in securing the regional status quo and combating religious and political extremism. However, Egypt sees Islamism very differently than Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and, especially, Qatar, and tends to side with the UAE’s categorical rejection of all forms of politicized religion in the Islamic world. Therefore, the Egyptian-Gulf relationship is a complex and delicate one with a good deal of nuance and competition over details, with generalized cooperation on the biggest picture issues. As long as the Egyptian government remains stable, this essential framework is likely to continue.

Why James Mattis should be welcomed by the Gulf



Amid the crazy quilt of billionaires, Republican insiders and retired generals who are populating president-elect Donald J Trump’s emerging cabinet, the Gulf states and other US Middle East allies are among the few outside of his core supporters with something real to cheer about already: his choice for secretary of defence, retired Gen James Mattis.

On domestic policy, many of Mr Trump’s choices thus far run the gamut from preposterous to alarming. However, the selection of Gen Mattis opens the prospect for a serious and purposeful US foreign policy in the Middle East in the next administration.

Gen Mattis, whose nickname is “Mad Dog”, developed a reputation at the Pentagon under Barack Obama of both exceptional competence and relative hawkishness towards traditional American adversaries such as Iran and, unlike Mr Trump, crucially, Russia.

Indeed, apparently Mr Obama’s administration cut short his tour at the head of US Central Command, the primary American military establishment for the Middle East, because his hardline views on Tehran’s incorrigible bad behaviour didn’t mix well with efforts to negotiate the nuclear agreement and a hoped-for, but unrealised and apparently unrealisable, broader rapprochement.

This, of course, will come as welcome news to the Gulf states, which have felt abandoned by Washington in recent years in the face of an ascendant Iran. The idea that one of the more combative, as well as competent, US generals will now be leading the Pentagon speaks to a desire to reverse the general course of US foreign policy under Mr Obama, globally, but especially in the Middle East.

The Obama approach has been, basically, to seek reconciliation with old enemies, build new bridges and present an open hand. He represents that trend in American foreign policy since the Second World War that has sought to reassure the international community of Washington’s good intentions and downplay any sense of Yankee imperialism.

Nobody knows what to expect from Mr Trump’s foreign policy, and until he nominates the secretary of state, a process that is taking both far too long and far too theatrical a turn, that will still be an open question. Even then, many specifics will remain unanswered.

However, with Gen Mattis at the Pentagon, it’s hard to imagine that Mr Trump’s nativism and so-called “America-first” approach won’t have a strong internationalist component to it. It’s by no means certain, but seems increasingly likely, that Mr Trump will represent that other great wing of American foreign policy, the assertive and aggressive Washington that frustrates allies when it is there but that they tend to miss badly when it is gone.

Gen Mattis is by no means a hawk in the manner of the George W Bush administration, or a neoconservative. But he is a believer in “peace through strength” and the aggressive forward deployment of American forces in areas such as the Middle East and the Gulf to deter potential adversaries from mischief.

This should greatly reassure the Gulf states. They are still coping with the fallout from the hubristic excesses of the Bush era, mainly the invasion of Iraq, but would generally like a stronger American presence in the region and more cooperation with Washington’s traditional allies.

This is precisely what Gen Mattis advocates, and to that end he resisted any military “pivot to Asia” during the Obama years and continues to advocate a strong US presence in the Middle East.

And much as he disliked the nuclear deal with Iran, Gen Mattis now takes the same view that the Gulf states do: that the United States should work with its allies in the international community to vigorously enforce the agreement rather than simply abrogating it, which would play directly into the hands of Iran’s hardliners.

Another important advantage of having Gen Mattis at the Pentagon is that he, perhaps alone, in the administration that has taken shape thus far, would be flatly and confidently able to tell Mr Trump precisely what military ideas are implausible or unworkable and which are worth pursuing. It’s hard to imagine his somewhat paranoid and fanciful proposed national security adviser, retired Gen Michael Flynn, playing the same role. Indeed, it’s much easier to imagine Gen Flynn simply endorsing any flight of fancy that Mr Trump may concoct. Gen Mattis is made of sterner stuff.

Nevertheless, having a recently retired general undermines the principle of civilian control of the military and Gen Mattis will require a congressional dispensation to serve. This should be a rare exception to an important rule.

George Marshall, the first American secretary of defence under Harry Truman, received such a dispensation from Congress. Every now and then one is necessary. If the United States, and certainly its Gulf allies, ever needed someone as hard-nosed and serious as Gen Mattis in the Pentagon, it’s definitely now.

Tougher Stance on Iran Should Reassure Washington’s Gulf Partners

Washington’s relations with its Gulf Arab partners have been strained in recent years, particularly because of U.S. outreach to Iran and concerns that the United States may be seeking a broader rapprochement with Tehran, largely at Gulf Arab expense. In recent months, however, evidence has been mounting that these concerns, particularly regarding the impact of the nuclear agreement with Iran, may have been premature. Harsh rhetoric about Iran in general, and the nuclear deal in particular, by President-elect Donald Trump and some of his leading advisors has raised questions about the viability of the agreement. But no one really knows how a Trump foreign policy will look, especially given that many of his key appointments, including secretary of state, remain unresolved. But even without knowing what Trump’s precise plans will be, outgoing President Barack Obama and the lame-duck Congress have been expressing Washington’s growing unease with Iran’s persistence with, and in some cases expansion of, its provocative and destabilizing policies. These developments must be reassuring from the perspective of the Gulf Arab countries.

On December 1, the U.S. Senate voted 99-0 to extend U.S. non-nuclear sanctions against Iran despite the relatively successful implementation of the nuclear agreement with six major world powers led by the United States – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Two weeks earlier, the House of Representatives passed a similar bill by 419-1. In the nuclear deal, Iran agreed to mothball its nuclear weapons program in exchange for the easing of a range of sanctions. Nonetheless, Congress has overwhelmingly approved a 10-year extension of the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA), which was set to expire at the end of 2016. This law authorizes the U.S. government to penalize companies doing business with Iran. It was particularly intended to discourage investment in Iran’s energy sector, in response to Iran’s efforts to expand its influence in the Middle East.

Thus far, both sides appear to be living up to their core obligations under the JCPOA, but aren’t going any further. Iran accuses the United States of violating both the letter and the spirit of the agreement. For its part, Washington has lamented that Iran has squandered its promise through ongoing support for U.S.-designated terrorist groups like Hizballah and sectarian militias in Iraq and elsewhere; its apparently increasing support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen; its participation in the brutal campaign to restore and extend the power of the Syrian dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad, particularly in eastern Aleppo; and its aggressive campaign to produce and acquire medium- and long-range ballistic missiles that can be used with conventional and, potentially, nuclear warheads. The reauthorization of the non-nuclear U.S. sanctions in the ISA has outraged Tehran, which has threatened a “strong reaction” to what it calls a “gross violation” of the nuclear deal. Yet the White House, which is strongly committed to protecting the agreement, confirmed that the congressional action did not violate the terms of the JCPOA, and has implied that Obama will sign the legislation.

In November, the House of Representatives voted to block a trade deal whereby Boeing was planning to sell, through third-party intermediaries, 109 aircraft to Iran for about $25 billion. The future of this potential sale remains unclear. A similar measure restricting the Export-Import Bank from providing financing for trade deals such as the Boeing airplane sale with Iran was introduced in the Senate by Marco Rubio of Florida. The White House criticized this proposed measure, calling it “sweeping and vague,” and saying that it would have a “chilling effect” on “permissible business with Iran.” Therefore, the Obama White House continues to push back against some measures in Congress that it regards as fundamentally incompatible with the JCPOA, but it doesn’t seem to view the extension of the ISA in that light. Indeed, the White House specifically said it would veto the bill if it believed it was incompatible with the nuclear agreement, but hasn’t reached that conclusion.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell specifically said the extension of the ISA is essential in giving the United States leverage to counter Iran’s “persistent efforts to expand its sphere of influence” in the broader Middle East. Such rhetoric will be very welcome in Gulf Arab capitals, given that it strongly echoes their own views about Iranian policies in the region. Moreover, while mistrust in the administration persists, that Obama seems unlikely to veto the measure adds to the sense that Washington in general, including the White House, is recognizing that Iran’s policies haven’t changed and, if anything, have grown more destabilizing since signing the nuclear agreement.

Saudi Arabia recently accused Iran of being responsible for a cyber warfare attack against six critical organizations in the country, including the country’s civil aviation administration and central bank. In addition, Iran recently reiterated its partnership with Russia in support of the Assad regime in Syria. Tehran says it seeks greater cooperation with Saudi Arabia, and a recent agreement by OPEC members, including the two oil exporting powerhouses, suggests that some mutual interests can be defined in certain cases. But given the overall context, Riyadh will be highly skeptical of these Iranian overtures. Along with several of Trump’s prospective appointees, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly also pressing the case that Iran has become a more aggressive regional power since the signing of the agreement, and that measures need to be taken to rein it in.

Yet the Gulf Arab states are not pressing the incoming administration to scrap the nuclear agreement when Trump takes office, as he said as a candidate he might if elected. Instead, they appear to view tough enforcement of the agreement as preferable to abrogating it. After all, an ideal scenario for Iranian hard-liners would be to reach the agreement and dismantle the international sanctions regime with Obama and then have Trump take the lead in scrapping the deal, freeing Iran to return to its nuclear project with little chance that the former comprehensive sanctions regime can be re-established. At the same time, some proposed Trump administration measures, such as the release of several categories of classified or “secret” documents related to the deal, would further signal a toughening of the U.S. line toward Tehran. Iran says it will walk away from the agreement if Trump tries to renegotiate its terms.

With both sides talking tough, Congress seeking to strengthen the U.S. position, and the new administration poised to take a harder line toward Iran, at least some aspects of U.S. policy in the Middle East seem to be moving in a direction compatible with the perspectives of most of the Gulf Arab countries. After several years of persistent doubts about U.S. intentions, a harder-nosed attitude toward Iran by Congress, as well as both the outgoing and incoming administrations, will be deeply welcomed by Washington’s Gulf Arab partners.

How the worst option is playing out in Aleppo


The unfolding tragedy in Aleppo is not only a humanitarian and moral disaster, but it is a political calamity as well. All the worst actors are poised to be the big winners from what appears to be the imminent collapse of rebel groups in the besieged eastern half of the city.

The Syrian regime and its allies are employing barbaric but effective strategies and tactics. The main tactic being inflicted on eastern Aleppo is the regime’s familiar siege, starve and batter approach to retaking territory.

It’s a medieval model: encircle the area; systematically restrict food, medical supplies and other civilian essentials; keep up a steady barrage of bombardment, particularly targeting medical facilities; and, eventually, overrun it with a sudden, overwhelming attack.

The goal is to terrorise civilians and break the will, as well as the ability, of insurgent groups to fight. It’s the height of cruelty, but it’s working.

The world, including the United States, is long on lectures, but doing nothing.

The broader wartime strategy of the Bashar Al Assad regime is paying off. Relying on the playbook of his ruthless but skilful father, Hafez, Mr Al Assad has been gambling all along that, over time, most of the rest of the region and the world will prefer the devil they know to those they don’t.

And, indeed, the view that the continuation of the conflict is more dangerous and destabilising than the persistence of the regime, with its growing dependence on Iran, has gained considerable traction in recent months. It’s the height of cynicism, but it’s working.

The Obama administration’s irresponsible unwillingness to adopt a policy that promotes an identifiable and achievable outcome in Syria meant Washington increasingly left itself few plausible options. That, in turn, has virtually ensured a gradual and largely unintended drift away from regime change, with Washington playing into the hands of Mr Al Assad and his backers in Russia, Iran and Hizbollah.

Syrian officials openly admit they are trying to secure control over Aleppo before Donald Trump is inaugurated as US president. Not that they fear him. To the contrary, they expect that he will be far more sympathetic to the regime than the incumbent, Barack Obama.

But they can’t be certain what Mr Trump will do. And they are absolutely sure that Mr Obama will do nothing, since the chemical weapons “red line” fiasco demonstrated Washington’s determination to avoid engagement in Syria at all costs.

Mainstream rebel groups have been effectively starved of financial and material support, while more radical Islamist groups enjoy the backing of private donors, and, in some cases, some governments.

Meanwhile, Mr Al Assad – whose regime seemed on the brink of collapse in the summer of 2015 – has been salvaged and vastly empowered by a massive joint intervention by Russia, Iran, Hizbollah and sectarian Iraqi militias.

Mr Al Assad seems poised to secure control over not merely Aleppo but what his faction calls “necessary Syria”, which is a large strip of the country running from the Lebanese border to the Alawite coastal areas in the Syrian north-west and encompassing all of the major cities.

Yet it will be a Pyrrhic victory. Syria is demolished. No one is ready to rebuild it. And reunifying the country is a pipe dream.

The war will continue in much of the countryside. A large portion of Syria’s Sunni Arab majority will never accept Mr Al Assad’s legitimacy after he has presided over so much death and destruction.

Moreover, the Assad regime is wholly dependent on Russia, Iran, Hizbollah and Iraqi militias. These foreign forces on the ground are primarily controlled by Tehran, which is actively turning Syria into an Iranian protectorate, if not colonial possession.

Other Arab states, particularly in the Gulf region, along with millions of Syrians, will never accept this as a fait accompli.

But, although the war will continue, the moderate rebels are among the biggest losers. Extremist and terrorist groups, particularly Al Qaeda, are among the biggest winners.

Al Qaeda’s affiliates will increase their already alarmingly effective efforts to dominate the opposition. ISIL’s “caliphate” may be doomed, but Al Qaeda is riding high.

That suits Mr Al Assad and his backers perfectly. They are counting on extremists to dominate the opposition, and for the world to therefore see his rampages as a counterterrorism campaign.

Thus far, all the worst parties in Syria, and the broader Middle East – Mr Al Assad, Russia, Iran, Hizbollah and Al Qaeda – are ascendant.

They are winning because the supposedly responsible international powers are abdicating their responsibilities and ceding the field to mass murderers, fanatics, gangsters and terrorists. The calamitous fallout of this inexcusable moral, political and strategic failure won’t be restricted to Syria. The price will be huge and global.