Think tank review: In September Russian think tank experts focused on the discussion of the Russia-U.S. Syria ceasefire agreement, the 9/11 anniversary and the U.S. presidential campaign.

Candles in memory of the passengers and crew of Flight 93, are lit along the Wall of Names at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016, as the nation marks the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Photo: AP

In September 2016 Russian think tanks focused on the discussion of the Russia-U.S. Syria ceasefire agreement, the 9/11 anniversary and the U.S. presidential campaign. Experts discussed the prospects and obstacles for the implementation of the Syrian ceasefire and analyzed the current state of the global war on terror as well as the prospects for effective international anti-terror cooperation.

Syrian ceasefire problems

The “Syrian knot” seems to be getting tighter and tighter with every passing month. Recent developments including the failure of the ceasefire agreement and Russian and U.S. accusations about which side was responsible for a strike on a humanitarian convoy show that all the expectations that the conflict could be settled with the mediation of the two powers were a bit premature. Russian experts tend to lay the blame for the increased tensions on the regional actors.

Also read: "What is behind the failure of the Syria ceasefire agreement?"

Thus, Yuri Zinin of Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University) explains that those parties to the conflict that essentially have nothing to discuss within the framework of the potential negotiation process are the ones most likely to violate the ceasefire. These include the most radical groups supported by sponsors from the Persian Gulf countries, and in particular, Saudi Arabia. Such organizations only relay the main message of their sponsor that Bashar Assad must go but they do not have any constructive agenda for dialogue.

Zinin also emphasizes the weariness of the conflict on both sides: In this sense, any respite is a positive fact as it “demoralizes the ranks of the opposition” where fewer and fewer members have the will to fight to the victorious end.

Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), believes that the U.S. is interested in Russia being bogged down in the Syrian conflict. The situation in Syria has reached a historical deadlock: The superpowers are trying to achieve agreements that invariably fail due to the actions of their regional “clients.”

At that, there is no illumination as to which way to move: The outgoing U.S. administration is weighed down by indecision, choosing to leave the problem to the next head of the Oval Office while not undertaking any coherent action or conducting any serious negotiations before that. This works against Russia, which is forced to get involved more and more in a conflict that seems to be as far from an ending as five years ago.

Irina Zvyagelskaya of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) tries to introduce a grain of optimism to the discussion of the September events. Russia and the U.S. must continue working together because a lot has already been done on that path, although it may not be obvious to most observers. The failure of the agreements is a serious challenge, especially in a situation where trust is lacking and there are diametrically opposed views on various aspects of the conflict.

However, it would be a mistake to stop negotiations because of that, as the negotiation process has a huge significance: “The very process of meetings, negotiations, coordination and contacts on the Syrian situation may have an independent value to the world community, which has found itself trapped in a collapsed world order.”

“The patient is no longer in a coma, his condition being assessed as critical though stable,” emphasizes Moscow Carnegie Center analyst Leonid Isaev, who also urges that the importance of the Russian-American cooperation on Syria should not be underestimated. A lot has been done already on the path of settlement, and the sides should not give up on it merely because of the September events.

Isaev is confident that the regional actors who cannot be influenced by either Moscow or Washington are responsible for the failure of the ceasefire agreement. The regional allies are playing their own big game by using the contradictions between Russia and the U.S. for their own purposes and sabotaging the peaceful process. “Until the U.S. and Russia have solved this problem, their capacity to enforce the agreements, and therefore, their capacity to affect the Syrian crisis will remain very low,” Isaev concludes.

9/11 anniversary and the global fight against terrorism

The fifteenth anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11 provoked a discussion among Russian experts on the current situation in the struggle against terrorism: What has, and what has not been done by the international community over the past period, and what are the prospects of joining efforts to counter this threat?

Yuri Kobaladze of MGIMO University comments that, regrettably, no significant success in the struggle against terrorism has been achieved since 2001. The campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, which were started following the terrorist attacks, have not resulted in a reduction of the terrorist threat. Contrary to previous expectations, the U.S. counter-terrorist activity has not eliminated the threat. This makes joint international efforts to fight terrorism a key to solving the issue.

Recommended: "15 years after 9/11, the terrorists are winning"

In contrast, Sergey Veselovsky of RIAC and MGIMO University argues that important successes in the fight with the international terrorism have been achieved over the last years. The countries established control mechanisms over the cash flows used to finance terrorism, set up an operational information exchange among each other, focused on the safety of nuclear and dual-use technologies, and almost managed to terminate Al-Qaeda, killing its leader Osama bin Laden. At the same time, even those successes cannot invalidate the considerable spread and growth of terrorist activities over the past 15 years.

The causes of that growth are rooted in the flawed counter-terrorism strategy of the U.S., which has tried to solve the problem with its military destroying the sovereignty of states including Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. All these countries have become a foothold for Islamists who easily fill the vacuum left after the secular regimes. In this situation, “the fight with terrorism must in fact be started from scratch, considering the new realities of a still more dangerous and less predictable world,” concludes Veselovsky.

U.S. presidential elections

The U.S. presidential race remains a hot topic for Russian experts. In September, they analyzed the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Alexander Gorbachev of Moscow Carnegie Center believes that, although formally Hillary Clinton won the debate as she was able to convey a distinct and clear message about her campaign platform and plan of action, the advantage, in terms of a definite agenda and debate style, was certainly on the side of Donald Trump. In general, the questions and answers were of a routine, trivial nature, but the discussion itself grew into the confrontation between “Trump the human against Hillary the executive.”

The idea about the ambivalence of Clinton’s victory is further supported and developed by Daniil Parenkov of MGIMO University: Debates do not always determine the winner, and in this case, the general impression does not prove the overwhelming dominance of either Trump or Clinton. The candidates were facing different tasks, which they both accomplished well. However, the Republicans failed when it was the time for the interpretation of results, when they gave up the initiative to the Democrats, who were quick to declare Hillary’s decisive victory. Although Democrats relied only on the results of one of many public opinion polls, “Hillary was not able to demonstrate her long-expected complete superiority over the opponent at the first debate.”

Also read: "The US presidential debates are just solidifying the narrative about Russia"

Dmitry Suslov of the Valdai Club suggests paying more attention to the candidates’ foreign policy preferences voiced during the debate. In domestic questions, Hillary appeared much more convincing and better prepared, which explains, to a large extent, her victory.

However, Trump seemed more realistic and convincing in the area of foreign policy discourse. Trump names terrorism and China (but not Russia) the two major sources of evil, which is a closer reflection of the reality. At the same time, Suslov emphasizes that there were “the debates between two hawks,” and that the electoral victory of either of them will be no advantage to Moscow. “Regardless of who will become the next U.S. president, Russia-U.S. relations will continue being complicated.”

CFDP expert Konstantin Sonin also addresses the question of whose victory in the U.S. presidential race is more favorable to Russia. Despite the popular opinion that Russia and Vladimir Putin personally are interested in Donald Trump’s victory, in reality it is Hillary Clinton that the Kremlin will find much easier to deal with. Trump is new to the foreign policy field, which makes it of secondary importance to him, and therefore, it will be almost impossible to maintain a stable dialogue to solve urgent international problems. In contrast, Clinton always “keeps the picture of the world in her mind” and is aware of the necessity of maintaining international efforts.