The situation in Syria is currently experiencing one of its most critical times. The past months have seen multiple Russian and US efforts to arrange a ceasefire and set up a military coordination agreement, which have all failed.

The failed attempts highlight stubborn differences of opinion over key questions related to the war in Syria and the Middle East itself. We cannot avoid considering that Moscow’s intervention in Syria over the past year had an outsized effect on the course of the conflict.  The Kremlin’s primary aim seemed to be to destroy and fragment as much as possible the Syrian government opposition on the battlefield, leaving therefore extremist forces as the only true fighting force opposing Assad.

The Russian military intervention has changed the shape of the conflict and, most probably, its final solution. Without a stepped up military effort, the US is left without any influence over the course of the civil war. The American administration has been cautious on the use of force, ceding the battlefield in Western Syria to the Russian-led coalition, while the Western coalition retained focus on the fight against Daesh to the east. Nevertheless, to the Russian military had become clear since nearly the beginning that unquestioned victory was impossible and that the problem lied more in its allies than on opposition forces[1]. On this point, the differences of opinion between Russia and Iran become evident, as Teheran remained convinced that a battlefield victory was still possible. The repeated battles for Aleppo had convinced Russia that the ground forces of its allies were not able to achieve a total victory. Syrian and Iranian forces appeared too weak to hold and defend what they seized.

The Kremlin seemed to realize it this last March announcing the withdrawal. From that point, Russia declared it would no longer join exhausting and uncertain battles even if the level of Russian involvement in Syria continued to be relatively high[2].

Since the very beginning, Russia entered the conflict reinforcing its claims to be a credible partner against violent extremism and standing as a diplomatic superpower, thanks to its dialogue with crucial actors in the area (namely, Iran). Indeed, the Iran-Russia cooperation in the area is temporary, defined by mutual recognition of the threat of Daesh and only aimed at accelerating a political solution[3]. This year Russia has made efforts, together with the United States, to arrive to a more direct cooperation, setting a goal of joint bombing campaign against Daesh forces and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front. Obstacles were evident from the beginning: the differences in the strategic interests of both parties. The collapse of the ceasefire in September exposed the impossibility for US-Russia cooperation. After the air attack on a UN aid convoy on the 19th of September – allegedly carried out by the Russian-Syrian forces, according to US Defense officials[4] – the ceasefire collapsed.  Soon after, Russian air forces started the attack towards Aleppo, where according to the United Nations, more than 400 civilians have been killed[5].

All parties to the conflict continue pursuing competing military strategies to establish the basis for imposing a political solution. The failure to find an agreement on who the rebels were and what were they fighting for has led to an estranged dialogue between the parties.

The issue is that, in Syria, the Russian-American confrontation is linked to a series of regional dynamics, political and ideological conflicts- such as the Kurdish issue – which all allow Moscow to defy the US and assert their power, but mostly to gain a voice in decisions over future crisis. Therefore, Russia’s intervention in Syria must be analyzed in relation with the US and Europe. Putin is definitely succeeding in ensuring the survival of the Assad’s regime through its supplies, preventing a regime change. Its strategy is currently aimed at the recapture of Aleppo, which would allow Assad to regain his power.

It is undeniable that Russia’s intervention in Syria brought advanced weaponry that guarantee supremacy in the skies, installing also new military bases and generally seen as interlocutor for several regional actors: Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Turkey among others. In this sense, Putin has certainly reached a diplomatic achievement. After having clashed with Erdogan on the Syrian war (where Ankara supported the rebels and Moscow the regime), especially after the killing of a Russian fighter by the Turkish Air Force[6], Putin has taken advantage of the crisis between the West and the Turkish president – wired up after the failed coup of July – standing as its privileged partner, eliminating the sanctions previously imposed on Turkey[7]. The recent Turkish operations on the Syrian territory (the operation Shield Euphrates, for which the Russian consent was essential) testify the understanding achieved between the two countries. For the current energy world game – the biggest non-military weapon in the hands of Putin – this cooperation is clearly posing some trouble to the US. If the project of the Russian-Turkish pipeline should actually take place, it could allow Moscow to cut off the East European countries hostile to it (neo-Nato members).

It becomes clear how Russia is seen as a reference point for all the parties in the battlefield. Obviously, this does not mean Moscow dominates uncontested, or that it has not to face problems with its allies. On the contrary, it means Putin is now spending time and credibility on the search of a new balance. The US has tried as well, being challenged on several sides. The first is the inability to wipe away Daesh without establishing a transition phase between regime and rebels. The second is the inability to prevent Moscow to use the Syrian war as a showcase to declare its willingness to stop hostilities. On these points, the US has so far failed miserably. Yet, it should be clear that Russian intervention has a final date for the success of the diplomatic solution, and that will be precisely when Aleppo returns under regime control[8]. Without Syria’s largest city, neither Putin nor Assad will ever agree on ending the war, because they would be out of control of Syria’s central gateway. Aleppo has always been the largest city and economic hub, and now is the most vital strategic prize remaining in the conflict. The latest indiscriminate massacres seem to testify the importance of Aleppo[9]. The situation is further complicated by the lack of a long-term strategy in the US administration, being relegated to a diplomatic role. Some critics agree in affirming that the situation would not run so far out of control if the US had intervened more courageously over a year ago. However,  Washington had one primary goal: to prevent the US from becoming involved in another war in the Middle East, a lesson learned from the devastating war in Iraq[10]. Nevertheless, military support was provided, but insignificant compared to the one Assad received from its allies.

The US administration seemed to believe the payoffs from action were uncertain, with unacceptable high costs. On the other side, advocates of interventionism simply assert that American intervention could improve the lives of Syria’s citizens, bringing to an end the conflict. The US government was very strong since the beginning on taking into account the legacies of failed interventions. Therefore, the administration has been very cautious in avoiding the mistake of supporting the “wrong” rebels, so they have refrained from becoming involved at all, deciding to focus their efforts on defeating Daesh.

The spillover effects of this policy have strengthened radical extremists in the country, contributing to the miscellaneous parties nowadays in conflict. The vacuum that was created by America’s limited engagement has been filled by Iran, Russia, and most dangerously, by countless terrorist organizations. Yet, the Pentagon continues to examine the possibility of arming moderate opposition forces with surface air systems that would allow them to shoot down low flying helicopters belonging to the Syrian air force[11]. Nevertheless, it seems more likely that the conflict between the US and Russia will continue to be fought on the diplomatic level.

A decisive factor will be to what degree the external powers involved in the conflict want to support their local allies. Russia will remain as long as it takes, given its hope to increase its general footprint in the world. There is something that all parties to the war agree on: maintaining the territorial integrity of Syria. And yet, partition seems the most likely outcome, as no side appears able enough to win public support to control the entire country.


References

How Syria became the new global war, October 11 2016, Spiegel, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/syria-war-became-conflict-between-usa-and-russia-and-iran-a-1115681-4.html

Putin orders start of Syria withdrawal, saying goals are achieved, March 14, 2016, New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/15/world/middleeast/putin-syria-russia-withdrawal.html

Putin ends Russian tourism ban to Turkey after Erdogan talks, 29 June 2016, Bloomberg news, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-06-29/putin-lifts-ban-on-russian-tourism-to-turkey-after-erdogan-talks

Report of the Syrian Human Rights Committee on violations of Human Rights in Syria, 17 November 2016, http://www.shrc.org/en/?p=28704

“Russian planes dropped bombs that destroyed UN aid convoy”, US officials say, The Guardian, 21 September 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/20/un-aid-convoy-attack-syria-us-russia

Russian colonel: “Syrian has known no military victories”, 10 September 2016, Middle East Monitor, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160910-russian-colonel-syrian-army-has-known-no-military-victories/

Steven Heydemann, Why the United States hasn’t intervened in Syria, 17 March 2016, Brookings

Turkish downing of Russian warplane, BBC News, 1 December 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-34912581

UN News Centre, 6 October 2016,  http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=55228#.WDGF9Vz9iVs

 

Notes

[1] Russian colonel: “Syrian has known no military victories”, 10 September 2016, Middle East Monitor, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160910-russian-colonel-syrian-army-has-known-no-military-victories/

[2] Putin orders start of Syria withdrawal, saying goals are achieved, March 14, 2016, New York Times , http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/15/world/middleeast/putin-syria-russia-withdrawal.html

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/16/world/europe/russian-forces-remain-heavily-involved-in-syria-despite-appearances.html

[4] Russian planes dropped bombs that destroyed UN aid convoy, US officials say, The Guardian, 21 September 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/20/un-aid-convoy-attack-syria-us-russia

[5]UN News Centre, 6 October 2016,  http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=55228#.WDGF9Vz9iVs

[6] Turkish downing of Russian warplane, BBC News, 1 December 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-34912581

[7] Putin ends Russian tourism ban to Turkey after Erdogan  talks, 29 June 2016, Bloomberg news, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-06-29/putin-lifts-ban-on-russian-tourism-to-turkey-after-erdogan-talks

[8] How Syria became the new global war, October 11 2016, Spiegel, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/syria-war-became-conflict-between-usa-and-russia-and-iran-a-1115681-4.html

[9] Report of the Syrian Human Rights Committee on violations of Human Rights in Syria, 17 November 2016, http://www.shrc.org/en/?p=28704

[10] Steven Heydemann, Why the United States hasn’t intervened in Syria, 17 March 2016, Brookings, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2016/03/17/why-the-united-states-hasnt-intervened-in-syria/

[11] Plan B: US considered arming Syrian rebels against Russian planes & artillery, RT, 24 October 20016, https://www.rt.com/usa/363940-us-syria-opposition-arms/