April 5, 2015
Russia’s military intervention in Syria was launched on September 30, 2015. On February 22, the United States and the Russian Federation, Co-Chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), issued the “Joint Statement on Cessation of Hostilities in Syria”. On February 27, despite reports of violations, guns fell silent giving rise to cautious optimism. On March 14 President Putin announced that having fulfilled their objectives “the main part” of Russian armed forces in Syria would start to withdraw. In a telephone conversation with President Obama he said that “this will certainly serve as a good signal to all conflicting sides and create conditions for the start of a true peace process.” In a nutshell, the past six months have been the most intense period of the five-year conflict opening a window of opportunity for re-energizing the political transition talks between the regime and the opposition.
Russia’s intervention and the decision to start withdrawing forces have led to much speculation about Moscow’s intentions. International Crisis Group’s (ICG) briefing “Russia’s Choice in Syria” dated March 29 contains the most clearheaded analysis of what Moscow has achieved through its intervention and the challenges which remain (1). Below are some key passages from the briefing:
“The combined impact of Russian airstrikes and an apparent surge of pro-regime foreign fighters, facilitated by Iran, not only gave the regime the upper hand, but also threatened to drive non-jihadist rebel factions toward military defeat and political marginalization…
“… Russia’s military push, had it continued on the same course, might well have defeated the non-jihadist opposition within months…
“… by stopping short of decisively defeating the non-jihadists, it (Russia) has left an opening to prevent a worst-case scenario for Syria: unending war between a brutal regime too weak to pacify large swathes of the country and Salafi-jihadist groups (IS and Jabhat al- Nusra) willing and able to wage perpetual, asymmetric insurgency against it, while exploiting the continued bloodshed to augment their global recruitment…”
According to the ICG, Moscow, through its intervention, has reversed the erosion of the regime’s power and blocked any realistic path for externally-backed regime-change by military means – as happened in Iraq and Libya. It has also enhanced and reinforced Russia’s starring role on what may be the world’s most prominent geopolitical stage, where its influence and leverage today are on par with the otherwise more powerful U.S.
In ICG’s opinion, the two other key Russian objectives are restoring stability in what has become an extremely volatile Middle East and weakening the power, reach and appeal of jihadist groups. But the reality that no conceivable settlement could leave Assad in power indefinitely presents a challenge and may require further adjustments in Moscow’s strategy. Because, any armed opposition groups which agree to such a deal would likely find many of their fighters joining other factions willing and able to continue the fight.
The key to containing if not resolving the Syrian conflict remains cooperation between Russia and U.S. It now seems that compartmentalization of issues is proving to be a realistic method in dealing with today’s most pressing international challenges such as the Syrian conflict and ISIL (2). While taking every opportunity to restate their positions on Ukraine, perhaps less aggressively, Moscow and Washington now give the impression of inching towards one another in Syria.
One day before the beginning of Russian military withdrawal, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave an interview to REN TV network. While directing a lot of criticism at the US, he also mentioned concrete cooperation in Syria. He said:
“Mosul is the ISIS capital in Iraq. The Iraqi armed forces are waging a military campaign against the city with assistance from the US-led coalition. In Syria, Raqqa is the main city of the so-called caliphate proclaimed by ISIS on the Syrian territory. Russia is ready to coordinate its actions with the United States because Raqqa is in eastern Syria, where the US-led coalition mainly operates. I won’t reveal any secrets if I say that the United States proposed a “division of labor” of sorts with Russian Aerospace Forces focusing on liberating Palmyra, and the US-led coalition seeking to free Raqqa with Russia’s support…”
Moscow and Washington still have three hurdles to tackle:
• Persuading the regional backers of Damascus and the opposition to give their support, not only in words but also in deeds, to a Syrian-owned political transition.
• Securing broad-based agreement on who is a “terrorist” and who is a “moderate”.
• Breaking the deadlock over Assad’s future.
The retaking of Palmyra from ISIL on March 27 was good news. Hopefully, Raqqa would be next…
(1) International Crisis Group, Middle East Briefing No. 47, Russia’s Choice in Syria, 29 March 2016.
(2) “US-Russia Relations: Compartmentalization of Issues”, 23 July 2015.