The failure of the ceasefire in Syria and the worsening in Russia-U.S. relations are only temporary. Eventually the sides will have to come back to the negotiating table to address the crisis.
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov speaks at a briefing in the Defense Ministry in Moscow, Oct. 7, 2016. Photo: AP
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The disruption of the ceasefire in Aleppo and the subsequent U.S. decision to suspend dialogue with Russia on Syria led to a round of poorly masked mutual accusations between Moscow and Washington. It also provoked a wave of speculation regarding the potential of an open armed conflict between the two powers.
The official representative of Russia’s Defense Ministry, Igor Konashenkov, even warned the U.S. that the security of Russian bases in Syria was guaranteed from the air. Russia has confirmed that it has sent an S-300 air defense missile system to its naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus.
This development is not surprising, taking into account the rapid pace with which the negotiations on the ceasefire were taking place. Diplomatic brainstorming ahead of the upcoming U.S. elections looked more like an effort on the part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration to leave a more or less significant legacy in foreign policy or to shift the responsibility for the ongoing crisis on Russia. The real breakthrough was nowhere to be expected – full implementation of the ceasefire agreement required both Russia and the U.S. to make their allies stop all military actions.
Moscow, which in fact saved the Syrian army in the fall of 2015, still has some influence on Damascus. Ultimately, it can simply stop providing air support – without it any offensive carried out by governmental forces will be doomed. Again, if Russian President Vladimir Putin orders his military to stop all flights, his order will be implemented. So, Putin is able to fulfill his part of the deal, at least to some extent, taking into account the influence of Iran and Hezbollah, a military group that is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S., Canada, EU, and other countries.
But Washington clearly has problems with its part of the agreement. Firstly, it is not clear which groups of the opposition are under U.S. influence. There never was a so-called “moderate” opposition. The Americans’ only hope is to reach some understanding with the Kurds, but there are none of them in Aleppo. There are Islamists of varying degrees of radicalism, but they have different sponsors and patrons. Secondly, not all stakeholders within the U.S. support cooperation with Russia on Syria.
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According to the Russian military, the Pentagon was hampering or openly sabotaging any efforts to reach a compromise even on such questions as the information exchange on air strikes. If Russia and the U.S. cannot find common ground in this situation, then discussing a more serious agenda such as the creation of joint coordination centers is impossible.
These factors, as well as U.S. strikes on any targets in the region, including on the Syrian army, led to the failure of the ceasefire deal. It would be extremely surprising if it were successful.
The new round of Russia-U.S. confrontation that followed also should not surprise anyone. The eagerness of both sides to shift responsibility over the failure to a partner is quite rational. Plus, another factor at play is human irritation – Obama is upset with being unable to leave gracefully and the Kremlin is clearly tired of American manipulations and intrigues. No one wants to look weak in this situation, so the sides exchange mutual accusations.
The situation is difficult, but not catastrophic. It is difficult because now the armed conflict in Syria will be prolonged for six more months, or even longer. The government and the opposition are not actually ready to negotiate peace. They are not tired enough of war.
The leaders in Damascus believe that military advances will eventually ensure stronger positions at the negotiating table, because Aleppo remains the main stronghold of the opposition, which is not going to give up: It still hopes that the regime will collapse sooner or later. The suffering of the population naturally does not concern anyone.
The situation is difficult also because six more months of fighting will not bring any breakthrough in the war. The spring of 2017 will not look very different from the current situation. While the opposition is likely to remain fragmented and unable to negotiate, it will receive U.S. support with guns and financing (this is the American “Plan B” that is often discussed in Moscow).
The Syrian army – exhausted with five years of war – will remain focused on Aleppo instead of fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). Regional actors supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad and opposition will still look at the conflict as part of a broader Sunni-Shia confrontation.
So, why is the situation not catastrophic? Firstly, a military confrontation in Syria is not in the interests of Moscow or Washington. Regardless of all disputes with the West over Crimea and Ukraine, the Kremlin in fact wants to revive its relations with the West and the Syrian campaign was partly aimed to achieve this goal. With regard to Washington, it’s one thing to use the “Russian threat” to scare Congressmen for the purpose of increasing military spending and another – to start an open conflict with a nuclear power.
Besides, the current failure of the ceasefire is not the first one. Many peace deals and negotiations were disrupted in 2016, and this is logical given the complex nature of the conflict. This time the U.S. wanted Moscow to leave Assad with no options, but offered nothing in return – not only a clear peace plan, but also not even a public appreciation of Russia’s positive role in resolving the conflict.
In six months, the new American president will get used to the work in the White House, form a team of advisors and will be able to finally focus on foreign policy issues. If the situation is favorable, one might expect a revival of U.S. efforts to resolve the crisis, including negotiations with Russia.
There is no military solution to the Syrian crisis – neither side will be able to gain enough strength to win. It might be possible that someone will be in a more favorable position, but not more. Russia will not leave Syria because it has already spent too much energy and resources on this campaign. Without a victory or a peace deal, Russia’s forces leaving Syria will be regarded in the world as an acknowledgement of defeat, and that would devalue all the achievements of the past year.
Pushing the Russian military out of Syria, the same way as they were pushed out of Afghanistan in the 1980s, is unlikely to be possible – the Kremlin learned this lesson well. Russia continues to express its readiness to reach a compromise and make concessions if its interests and the interests of its allies (not Assad, but the public loyal to him) are taken into account.
So, Moscow and Washington will have to go back to the negotiating table in six months or so and make necessary mutual concessions. Then they will have to persuade their partners in Syria and the region to support the peace plan. Here the fatigue from war and the growing ISIS threat might play a favorable role to further this process. Similar to the current situation, diplomatic demarches and exacerbations are likely to take place once again, hence success will not be achieved easily.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.