The parties of war won in both Moscow and Washington. For the inhabitants of Aleppo, that could mean a long winter of continued shelling and bombing.
A Civil Defense worker carrying the body of a child after airstrikes hit al-Shaar neighborhood in Aleppo, Syria. Photo: Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets / AP
On Oct. 3, U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby announced that Washington has suspended diplomatic talks with Russia over Syria. In no uncertain terms, this means the death of the U.S.-Russia Syria ceasefire deal signed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his American counterpart John Kerry on Sept. 9.
"This is not a decision that was taken lightly," Kirby said in a statement. "Unfortunately, Russia failed to live up to its own commitments... and was also either unwilling or unable to ensure Syrian regime adherence to the arrangements to which Moscow agreed."
This also means that Russia and the U.S. will stop the exchange of military and intelligence information, with Washington withdrawing its personnel from the U.S.-Russia joint coordination center in Syria. According to the U.S. Department of State, Moscow and its Syrian allies preferred the military path, as indicated by their bombings of civilian infrastructure - including hospitals, inhabited districts and humanitarian convoys.
In turn, Moscow accuses Washington of collaborating with radical Islamists to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. According to the official statement of Russia’s Foreign Ministry, the U.S. is “ready to cut a deal with the devil” in its attempts to change the official Syrian regime. The Kremlin sees the refusal of the U.S. to cooperate with Russia in Syria as Washington’s inability (or reluctance) to separate the moderate opposition from radical Islamists belonging to Jabhat Al-Nusra, a terrorist group in Syria affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
“We have to forget about collaboration so far,” Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitri Trenin told Kommersant daily. “The recent [mutual] accusations put the latest cooperation to an end. However, there is not only the threat of breaking even today, but also the risk of sliding back to a negative.”
The real reason behind such accusations was the large-scale bombing of Aleppo and its hospitals by Syrian and Russian air forces. Moreover, the successes of the Syrian army in Aleppo became a warning sign for Washington and it responded immediately. The very fact that Assad’s troops surrounded the opposition in eastern Aleppo means that the project of creating the humanitarian corridor for civilians failed. It could bring about another humanitarian catastrophe for the population of eastern Aleppo: about 275,000 residents of this district (including 100,000 children) are trapped by ongoing bombings and shootings.
Therefore, three representatives of the UN Security Council - the U.S., France and Great Britain - are expressing their indignation for a reason. However, there was no such indignation in August when Aleppo’s central districts, taken by Assad’s troops, were under fire by the U.S.-backed opposition. There were no similar demands to stop the opposition’s attack.
The fact that Russia’s air forces and the representatives of some Russian private military companies participated in the Aleppo battles indicates that Russia is still extensively involved in the Syrian civil war despite its March announcement about the end of its Syrian campaign. However, it doesn’t mean that Moscow is interested in keeping Assad at the helm, according to Vasily Kuznetsov, an associate professor at Moscow State University’s School of Global Studies and a research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
For Moscow, Assad is a very inconvenient ally, who has been trying to create an impression that the tail wags the dog, not vice versa.
Syria is the only country in the Middle East that depends on Russia to such a large extent, adds Kuznetsov. On the other hand, the expert argues, “No one in Syria will bet only on Russia.” Damascus could try to diversify the list of its allies and the first candidate for a closer alliance may become Iran.
However, Moscow has significant leverage over Assad: without its support from the sky, the Syrian troops would fail. Russia is more interested in a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict. After all, before coming up with the Syrian ceasefire deals, the Kremlin halted its air strikes against the Syrian opposition to find common ground with the U.S. despite Assad’s desire to fight until the final victory.
Yet, regardless of its keen interest in a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict, Moscow might be interested in the victory of the Assad troops in Aleppo for tactical reasons. In fact, the triumph of the Assad army could be the Kremlin’s tactical victory, given the fact that the tenure of U.S. President Barack Obama is coming to an end.
“If Aleppo falls, it will highlight the plight of the [Syrian] rebels throughout the country,” said Omar Lamrani, an expert from Stratfor, an American intelligence company.
Today, Russia aims at supporting the Syrian troops in Aleppo to strengthen its positions in any future negotiations on the peaceful political settlement in Syria, said Vladimir Sotnikov from the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences in an interview to Kommersant. Moreover, Russia wants to win the war by depriving the opposition of its key outpost, Aleppo.
When the Kremlin still hoped that the Syria negotiations with the Obama administration might lead to a real settlement, it sent signals to Washington that it was ready to make certain concessions, such as decreasing its military support of the Assad army. Yet, having been disappointed with the Syrian ceasefire deal, “Moscow took a hard line” in its policy in Syria, argues Sotnikov.
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With the U.S. presidential campaign reaching its apex, there is a window of opportunity for Moscow to find common ground with the next American president. Yet the odds of Russia seeing eye-to-eye with the current U.S. presidential administration are unlikely, because the representatives of the outgoing Obama team can afford to act more rigorously in Syria than in the past.
“When we deal with the outgoing administration, its representatives start affording themselves the right to be more bold and defiant than usual,” said Yuri Rogulev, the director of the Franklin Roosevelt U.S. Policy Studies Center at Moscow State University.
He points out that the recent finger pointing between Russia and the U.S. over Syria is a clear indication that there won’t be collaboration between the countries over Syria in the upcoming months.
However, Russia’s campaign in Aleppo also looks like a gamble, which becomes obvious in the current geopolitical situation, which is not very favorable for Moscow. The pressure on Moscow is coming from different sides, said Sotnikov. Even France, which has been inclined to cooperate with Russia in its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), is questioning the Kremlin’s policy in Syria.
Paris accuses Russia of bombing Aleppo, and now the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle has appeared near the Syrian coast. A new wave of military escalation in Aleppo might bring about new sanctions for Moscow, which in the worst-case scenario, could lead to the diplomatic isolation of Russia.
The problem is complicated not only by the fact that the Kremlin keeps supporting the uncontrollable Assad, but also from the American policy in Syria. Actually, the Washington-supported opposition forces – the Free Syrian Army and the New Syrian Army, which are currently fighting against the Assad troops in Aleppo – are out of the control of the United States.
Currently, time is the enemy of Russia. The upcoming months could be marked with powerful diplomatic pressure on Moscow, given the ongoing bombings in Aleppo. However, despite the outcome of the battles in the city, the Kremlin is hardly likely to come up with a compromise.
The parties of war won in both Moscow and Washington. So, the future of Syria depends on the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Russia’s ability to negotiate with the next American administration.