Treading water in Syria – The United States & Russia create an illusion of progress


1 June 2016 – Though the cessation of hostilities in Syria, or what remains of it, has been in place since late February, the general consensus is that the Syrian war is not any closer to a resolution than it was then. In fact, at the time there was still the illusion that the Geneva process might be implemented, while today it is increasingly obvious that there is no will to make it work. In this context, the policies of the United States and Russia are paradoxical.

To many regional observers, Russian-American concord should lead to a breakthrough in Syria. There is still a mood in the region that once the “great powers” agree, everything else follows. And yet what both Washington and Moscow have shown is a very different reality, namely that they have a limited capacity to impose a solution in Syria. 

In light of this, each side has focused on pursuing separate agendas. The Americans have made the fight against Daesh their priority, preparing for the campaign to recapture the organization’s stronghold in Raqqa, which began this week.

The Russians, in turn, have continued to support Bashar Assad’s regime, but have also seen to it that he cannot shift the military balance of power decisively to his advantage. For instance, Moscow has not acted to help the regime surround Aleppo, though such an achievement would give Assad more leeway to ignore Geneva and dream of reconquering all of Syria. 

Perhaps that explains the Russians’ reluctance. For Vladimir Putin, a reinvigorated Assad is one who will refuse to make any concessions in talks with the opposition. Yet such talks, even if they are not immediately successful, are Russia’s ticket to global political relevance. For Moscow to be an active party in international diplomacy to resolve the Syrian conflict, it has to be able to push the Syrian regime toward a compromise. That’s possible only if Assad feels relatively insecure.  

Therefore, the dance between the Americans and Russians suggests that no breakthroughs are forthcoming. President Barack Obama would like to leave office with some form of success against Daesh, and the retaking of Raqqa would represent such an achievement. But he wants no more.  It is already apparent that on the diplomatic front, little can be expected from the United States. We are in the midst of a presidential election season, and with Geneva on life support, Syria diplomacy will be passed on to the next administration. The new president will need time to settle in, so the Americans will be in retreat in Syria until next spring at the earliest. 

That leaves Putin. Expectations that he would drop Assad were never realistic, though no one really believes the Russians are wedded to the Syrian leader. Rather, they seem to feel that unless his departure is voluntary, it may lead to the collapse of the Syrian military and security edifice that they have spent five years defending. Forcing Assad out, they feel, would only undermine their interests in Syria. 

Yet there is a more complex relationship about which the Russians must also be thinking: the one with Iran. Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister who serves as an advisor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made it clear recently to Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar that Assad’s exit was a “red line” for Iran.That doesn’t mean that Russia and Iran are at loggerheads over Syria, but it could explain why Putin sees an interest in allowing the Iranians and their allies to be bloodied there, to show them that they need Russia even more than Russia needs them. This seemed especially true in the battle for Khan Touman recently, near Aleppo, in which a number of Iranian combatants, including senior military commanders, were killed

Russia has dosed its interventions carefully. In the recapture of Palmyra, both they and the Iranians had a stake in bolstering Assad’s credibility, and, so, ensured success for the operation. They knew that Western publics have reacted with far greater horror to the destruction of historical artifacts than they have to the massacre of civilians by the Syrian regime. So why not bolster Assad’s credentials by retaking the ancient site? 

But such determination has not been visible everywhere. Aleppo is an example, while in the Damascus suburbs of Eastern Ghouta the Russians announced this week that they would delay attacks in order to allow certain rebel groups that are opposed to Islamist extremists to define their areas of control. In that way these territories would not be attacked by Russian aircraft. This strategy of dividing the opposition and trying to play on rifts between Islamists and the more moderate rebels may be more effective than blanket bombing. But it also means the Russians are willing to allow the rebels to retain territory, which Assad would prefer his army to seize. Holding on to territory means giving the opposition more leverage in future negotiations, something that displeases the Assad regime. 

Expect such maneuvering to continue in the coming months, until there is more predictability from Washington. As for Geneva, it is an emperor with no clothes–an empty vessel to create a semblance of a political process. Yet it permits Washington and Moscow to claim that they remain in charge. Their hope is that by next year the exhaustion of the parties will allow them to place some clothes on the emperor.   

Michael Young is a writer and editor in Beirut. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

We are in the midst of a presidential election season, and with Geneva on life support, Syria diplomacy will be passed on to the next administration.