Instead of choosing factions within Syria, the U.S. and Russia should be working together on bilateral and multilateral solutions to end the Syrian civil war.
A Free Syrian Army fighter takes position in a damaged house in the Aghyol area of Aleppo January 11, 2014. REUTERS/Jalal Alhalabi
The Syrian civil war, in addition to being an extremely bloody, sectarian dispute, has become an equally important microcosm of U.S.-Russian relations. The proxy war has marginalized U.S.-Russian relations and has created further confusion about an unpredictable Syria. Indirectly, the contrasting U.S. and Russian approaches may be threatening both Russian and U.S. national security. In an effort to stanch the bloodshed and improve ties prior to the Jan. 22 Geneva II Conference hosted by the U.S., Russia, and the UN, thinking about the causes of peace rather than the causes of war can lead to a breakthrough in the Syrian crisis.
The Jan. 22 start date for the Geneva II peace convention in Switzerland looms ominously. The convention intends to bring together representatives from the Syrian government, opposition groups, and even some independence-seeking Kurdish organizations in order to find some semblance of peace amidst the exceedingly deadly war. The Geneva II meeting will try to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid, end the fighting, outline a political transition for Syria,as well as discuss the acceleration of the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal. However, the opposition groups that have only just met as a “unified” National Coalition have yet to formally accept the invitation to Geneva II, and seek a transitional government solution “in which Assad plays no role.” In contrast, of course, the Assad government sees no future without Assad.
All the while, the United States is providing $250 million worth of non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition – not including reported CIA arms shipments and covert rebel training. At the same time, Russia is “increasing its weapons shipments” to al-Assad’s Syrian government and providing “military aid that is likely ‘more significant’ than Iranian arms supplies to Damascus,” reports a Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
Despite the Kerry-Lavrov agreement effectively eliminating Assad’s acknowledged chemical weapons supply, tangible signs of Russia and U.S. working together on a solution have been virtually nonexistent. The conflicting U.S. and Russian approaches not only perpetuate an unwanted proxy dispute between the U.S. and Russia but also, wittingly or unwittingly, threaten both Russian and U.S. national security.
Choosing sides within Syria is a recipe for disaster
Threats to the United States and Russia are not emanating from one specific group, but rather from the plethora of opposition groups, the forces loyal to the Syrian government, and, indirectly, through the remaining Syrian populace. Here are a few reasons why supporting neither the opposition nor the Assad regime will prove beneficial:
First, with regards to the opposition groups, they are not equally supportable. United only by a mutual rebellion against the standing Syrian government, the rebel groups have continued to split into factions resulting in deadly infighting. Boris Dolgov of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences suggests that there are more than 1,000 anti-government armed groups comprised of Syrian fighters and mercenaries from 80 countries around the world.
Second, supporting even the more moderate opposition groups is extremely risky. The more moderate, “unified,” and Western-backed National Coalition includes members of the Islamic Front who have fought alongside the al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), as well as the al-Nusrah Front, already designated by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization. While a significant portion of opposition groups actually fight against ISIS and seek the support of the United States, Senior Fellow from the Washington Institute, Andrew J. Tabler, admits “the abrupt increase in extremist elements among the Syrian opposition makes the possibility of helping its pro-Western parts while bypassing the jihadists unlikely.”
Third, as Vladimir Putin wrote in his op-ed for the New York Times, “might [members of the opposition groups] not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria?” The anti-terrorist branches of MI5 and Scotland Yard have just recently investigated the first cases of Syrian-trained European Muslims returning to London “specifically to carry out attacks.” This threatens not simply U.S. or Russian national security, but also many of the other aforementioned 80 countries.
On the other hand, supporting Assad could also incur unforeseen repercussions as the Syrian government continues to wage a shadowy widespread campaign of terror against the civilian population. At the same time, Iranian-backed Shia militias, such as the Hezbollah, also fight alongside the Assad regime. In retaliation for Assad’s actions, could not the remaining Sunni youth or refugee populace join more radical anti-Western and anti-Russian groups like ISIS or the al-Nusrah Front? Especially apropos for Russia, some radicalized Russian-speaking Islamist fighters will return to their home republics in the Caucasus, which will clearly generate a heightened security threat to that region, especially given the proximity of the Sochi Olympics.
Russia and the US must work together in Syria
Picking sides in the Syrian conflict has marginalized U.S.-Russian relations. So instead of contributing to a further weakening of bilateral relations and rationalizing the causes of this Syrian civil war – whether sectarian, political, or otherwise – it’s worth considering how the U.S. and Russia can bring peace to Syria.
In a bipolar world with only two reigning superpowers, the U.S and Russia might have formed a collaborative (or at least quid pro quo) relationship to subdue Syrian tensions. Two superpowers, working in concert with each other, might have brought peace to Syria and improved the potential for bilateral cooperation in the future.
In a multipolar world, however, the focus has naturally shifted to arms control and disarmament as a first step in bringing peace to Syria. The Kerry-Lavrov agreement to destroy the Syrian government’s chemical weapons arsenal is a clear example of disarmament, whereas a hypothetical treaty drawn up specifically to limit the amount of conventional weapons the Syrian government or opposition could possess is an example of arms control. Such tactics could and should be implemented, if only for the sole purpose of avoiding an intra-Syrian arms race.
There is also a role to play for international organizations within Syria. If both the Syrian government and opposition agree to Geneva II, this is the equivalent of one nation abiding by the judgment of a world court. And while the Geneva II convention will not magically solve anything, it can be a forum that fosters a dialogue of peace under the auspices of the United Nations.
The final lever that the U.S. and Russia can use to bring peace to Syria is by encouraging the growth of a true democracy within Syria. Bruce Russett, the Dean Acheson Professor of International and Area Studies at Yale University, explored the notion of democracies being more receptive to peace than war in his book “Grasping the Democratic Peace” and found that the chances of war can go down as much as 83 percent if both states are democracies and possess certain democratic characteristics . Regarding Syria, Russia and the U.S. could likely work together to support Syria internally and improve the future trajectory of the state simply by developing a democratic Syrian government.
Geneva II, while perhaps a little too optimistic about what can be achieved given the current political environment, is a necessary step on the progression toward a less dangerous Syria – a Syria without blood, refugees or hopelessness. Russia and the United States can help change that by working together.
In an article co-written for Foreign Policy by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright and former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on Syria, they contend that, “not only is coordination between Moscow and Washington critical to solving some of the world's most intractable problems, but the very act of working together on these issues is an important tool for generating the trust and understanding that is still lacking on both sides.” At Geneva II, the U.S. and Russia have the chance to be harbingers of peace, not arbiters of war.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.