Russian and foreign experts of the Valdai Club seem to believe the U.S.-Russia ceasefire on Syria is likely to work. Here is why.
A soldier of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) near the town of Mhin, Syria. Photo: Sputnik
With Moscow and Washington ready to sign the ceasefire deal on Syria this Saturday, Russian and foreign high-profile experts and politicians attending the Valdai Club’s annual conference “The Middle East: From Violence to Security” in Moscow on Feb. 25-26 seem to be cautiously optimistic about the odds of stopping the five-year-long bloodshed in Syria. In a broader perspective, the participants are debating the dynamics and challenges of the Middle East.
What are the odds of implementing the ceasefire deal?
Arguably, the major takeaway of the first day of the Valdai Club is that the Syrian ceasefire may produce a lasting truce. Ever since Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a joint statement announcing the ceasefire regime in Syria, there were reasonable doubts about whether the ceasefire would actually be implemented.
In fact, reasons to doubt the likelihood of its success are plentiful. The sheer number of stakeholders in the Syrian conflict makes it hard to ensure compliance. Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Russia’s Federal Council, argues that, since the end of the Cold War, the political landscape of the Middle East has become more complex than it used to be.
“The complexity of the Syrian crisis is that there are too many foreign actors in Syria with different agendas,” agreed Yasar Yakis, Turkey's former Foreign Minister. The divergence of interests of the multiple stakeholders makes it difficult to work out a ceasefire that could satisfy all the parties.
Furthermore, numerous observers doubted the willingness of Russia, a major sponsor of the ceasefire, to comply with its own provisions. “So far the Russian intervention has been inefficient [in producing a political solution to the crisis],” said Joseph Bahout, a visiting scholar of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
At the same time, Bahout agreed that the Russian government might play a positive role in Syria if it forces the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to enter a dialogue with the opposition.
Recently, Kerry spoke about “Plan B,” implying that the U.S. administration might have an alternative scenario for Syria on the table in case Russia proceeds with its airstrikes in violation of the ceasefire regime.
Indeed, some provisions of the ceasefire agreement allow for such an unfortunate scenario. The agreement excludes terrorist organizations, primarily the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria.
Given that the U.S. and Russia have still failed to draft a common list of terrorist organizations fighting in Syria (with Russia’s list being broader), the concern over the potential durability of the ceasefire is valid. Recent speculations about Turkey’s plans to send ground troops to Syria cast yet another shadow on the fragile initiative to stop fighting in Syria.
Nevertheless, participants of the Valdai Club seem to believe that the ceasefire regime is likely to succeed and finally put Syria on track to political agreement. For example, Mikhail Bogdanov, the deputy foreign minister of Russia, referred to the personal contact of the presidents of Russia and the U.S. as an essential sign of the two governments’ resolution to implement and observe the ceasefire. In addition, the deputy minister spoke of the efforts the two powers to ensure compliance of all the conflict parties with the agreement.
“Russia is ready to launch a compliance mechanism [to guarantee observation of the ceasefire]. Russia establishes a communication channel with the Syrian regime, the U.S. establishes a separate channel with the opposition,” said Bogdanov, highlighting the joint efforts of Russia and the U.S. to enforce the ceasefire regime.
Surprisingly, even Turkey’s representative, Yakis Yasar, the country’s former foreign minister, praised the joint effort of Russia and the U.S. “The only hope of the Syrian crisis is the Russian and American decision to enforce the ceasefire regime and make sure it is being observed. It may not work, but it is the best option the two countries can work out. Everybody should try their best not to break the ceasefire,” said the diplomat.
The decision of Russian President Vladimir Putin to personally explain the conditions of the ceasefire to the Russian public in a televised address may be yet another sign that the Russian leadership puts genuine faith into the potential of the ceasefire.
The Valdai Club experts seem to believe that everything about the recent U.S.-Russia cooperation points to the genuine interest of the major stakeholders in Syria to make the plan work. If the U.S. is able to ensure cooperation of the Syrian opposition and Russia — of the Assad government, it is reasonable to expect the ceasefire to work and pave the way to a long-awaited political solution of the Syrian crisis.
Russia’s leverage in Syria
Another challenge is the extent of the Kremlin’s influence over the Assad regime. The main question here is whether the Russian political leadership can vouch for the Syrian regime not only to comply with the ceasefire but also to agree on the future political organization of the country with the opposition. The Valdai Club's participants are inclined to believe that the Kremlin does indeed exercise effective control over the Assad regime.
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The Russian government might have a substantial degree of control over the Syrian governmen, according to Bouthania Shaaban, an advisor to President Assad. Noting that the Syrian government did not participate in drafting the terms of the ceasefire agreement, Shaaban claimed the Syrian government fully relied on the Russian interlocutors.
“Even if we [the Syrian government] are not there, our coordination and dialogue with the Russian government is continuous. If Russians are there, we feel as if we are there,” Shaaban said one day before the Valdai Club's conference.
The advisor also insisted on the readiness of Assad to comply with the ceasefire, notwithstanding his dubious remarks about his readiness to put the whole territory of Syria under control of government forces.
The recently announced parliamentary elections in Syria would not alter the political setting in the country in any substantial way. The participants of the Valdai Club seem to agree that even though the current Syrian constitution may require holding the elections in April, the elections are unlikely to affect the ultimate political arrangement of the country, something that is yet to be designed.
“Within six months a new government must be established. Elections must be conducted in accordance with provisions of the new constitution then,” said Bogdanov.
The words of the deputy minister indicate that even though Assad may conduct parliamentary elections in two months, there is no way for the current regime to avoid negotiations with the opposition in the future.
All in all, the big takeaway from this year's Valdai Discussion Club is that a political settlement in Syria might be closer today than it has ever been.