Author: Nikolay Surkov
Posted: November,10 2016
Even though Russia-West relations are at a low point, Syria remains an issue where they continue to cooperate.
Lately Western diplomats and journalists have become more vocal about blaming Russia for its approach in Syria. From this perspective, Russia’s strategy of supporting Syrian President has led to the protraction of the civil war and an increase in casualties.
Also, there are claims that Moscow is creating merely the outward illusion of the negotiations, which it needs to weaken international pressure (mostly pressure from the West) while it places its stakes on a military solution. Those sceptics basically say: If not for Moscow’s stance, the Syrian war would have been over.
However, those who think in this way underestimate the entire complexity of the Syrian conflict, where Russia is not the sole external stakeholder.
First, it should be understood that there are no short civil wars. It is enough to recall the civil war in Lebanon (1976-1989), in Algeria (1992-1999), in the former Yugoslavia (1991-2001) and in Libya (ongoing since 2011). In Syria, ousting the ruling President does not mean the end of the civil war. The government in Damascus is only one out of at least four parties of this conflict. If the Assad regime falls, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), the Kurds and the so-called moderate opposition will continue fighting each other for power in the country.
Second, before blaming Russia for cynical diplomatic maneuvering, one has to analyze the entire negotiation process in an unbiased way. The bottom line of analyses done by Western diplomats and media is simply that the Kremlin is to blame for everything. In fact, after Russia deployed its air forces in Syria in the fall of 2015, it is in Moscow’s utmost interest to finish the conflict as soon as possible. The military campaign in Syria is quite costly, takes the lives of Russian soldiers and risks Russia’s relations with regional players like Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Since the spring of 2016 Moscow has been trying to reach a settlement in Syria. However, a whole set of factors did not allow it to succeed: Assad’s stubbornness (the Kremlin underestimated his desire to stay in power), deep fragmentation of the opposition forces and their incapability to fulfill obligations they took (like cessation of hostilities) and the weakness of the West, which does not have real influence on the armed rebel groups (the Syrian Kurds are an exception).
This is why it is incorrect to say that Russia is simply using diplomacy as a cover for its new offensive in Syria. In fact, the offensive on Aleppo is an attempt to preserve Syria as a state after all attempts to negotiate with the opposition groups failed. From now on, Moscow is most likely to negotiate only with those who have real influence on the situation inside Syria – like Turkey and the Gulf monarchies.
Europe, which used to play a more active role at the very beginning of the Syrian conflict, will have to put up with such a situation as it has no influence. All that London, Paris and Berlin have is a set of Syrian political migrants, who have no authority on the ground in Syria.
It is also premature to talk about negative shifts in Western relations with Russia caused by the impasse in the Syria negotiations. Of course, there is a certain irritation in the West with Russia’s actions in Syria (although it is also stems in many ways from the Ukrainian crisis), including strong criticism in the media and attempts to make Moscow responsible for all civilian casualties in Syria. However, it is too early to judge unequivocally about the U.S. position.
There is an impression that the U.S. is significantly more concerned about the situation in Iraq and is not really ready to be seriously involved in the Syrian conflict.
Many politicians and journalists constantly repeat the line that Russia has to compromise and make some concessions in Syria. As an example, they always recall the deal on the disposal of the Syrian chemical weapon arsenal reached by Russia and the U.S. However, unique circumstances were in place and all parties were interested in reaching a compromise.
“Kremlin cannot give up on Assad or drop its military support to his army because it would depreciate all the previous successes’’
Damascus was afraid of the U.S. airstrikes while U.S. President Barack Obama did not want to launch yet another war. What compromises or actions are expected from Russia now? Kremlin cannot give up on Assad or drop its military support to his army because it would depreciate all the previous successes.
Unfortunately, Russia’s influence on Damascus has its limits. Besides, Assad has other allies, such as Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran, which give him some room for maneuver. However, Moscow can contribute to the search for a compromise between Assad and the opposition, or to put it in more precise terms, between Assad and external sponsors of the opposition. The question here is how realistic the demands of the Western powers really are.
There is an opinion in the West that the peace process in Syria failed because of Russia, which betrayed the trust of its partners. That could result in additional problems for Moscow in the UN Security Council (UNSC). However, it remains unclear where these speculations about some Russian compromises in the UN are coming from. There is no basis for it.
Until now almost all discussions of the Syrian conflict in the UNSC looked more like a “war of resolutions” rather than constructive cooperation of the great powers, in which the parties consistently reject any projects and proposals of their opponents.
In addition, speculations about the beginning of a Russia-China divorce sound quite absurd. Beijing took a more cautious stance on Syria, which basically goes in line with Chinese policy. China is interested in good relations with both Russia and the West, which makes it distance itself from any scandalous problems. This includes the situation in Aleppo.
Another important factor is the results of U.S. presidential election. With the upcoming presidency of Donald Trump, it remains to be seen if Moscow and Washington will be able to resolve the Syrian standoff. Many states took a wait-and-see attitude.
Even though Russia-West relations are at a new low, Syria remains an issue where they continue to cooperate. This gives hope for their normalization in the future. However, complete termination of the dialogue or even the introduction of new sanctions against Russia can produce only one possible result – the increase of the gap between Russia and the West, which undoubtedly won’t contribute to global stability.