Even with a tentative ceasefire in place, the war in Syria is still very far from being over. Russia and the U.S. can either form a post-modern coalition or embrace the winner-take-all approach of the Cold War and colonial eras.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a press conference after their meeting to discuss the crisis in Syria, in Geneva, Sept. 9. Photo: AP
Late in the evening of Sept. 9 in Geneva, after an exhausting, 14-hour-long round of negotiations, Russia and the U.S. finally announced a new ceasefire in Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his American counterpart John Kerry even agreed to joint strikes against the terrorists if the ceasefire holds for at least a few days beyond Sept. 12.
Until the very last moment, the outcome of the negotiations had been uncertain, with many politicians and experts openly voicing skepticism about the ceasefire’s prospects. The news that an agreement had been reached immediately resulted in a wave of positive comments from the leaders of major states and international organizations.
However, it hardly shook the universal belief that the Syrian crisis is still very far from being solved. The problem is not just that the memories are still fresh of the previous ceasefire, which was broken right after it was started in February this year. Today, as in February, behind the speeches of diplomats who are putting on a brave face, irreconcilable contradictions can be seen clearly. These again are being ignored by mutual consent, but they are no less deep and real for that.
The key difficulty that stands in the way of stopping the war in Syria is the barely calculable number of participants to the conflict. Moreover, the current situation on the battlefield is not satisfactory at all to any of the sides involved.
Under these conditions, a ceasefire is really advantageous to all, not only in humanitarian terms but also as a breathing space to regroup the forces and prepare for a new phase of the conflict, in which the participants hope to gain a decisive victory. The tragedy of what is going on is that a victory of one of the sides accompanied by a defeat of the other side - the classic scenario for ending a war - seems practically impossible given the current realities of the Middle East.
One might wonder, what is so surprising and unique about a war that is waged not by two or three but by a few dozen parties? Humanity has faced such challenges in the past, and the involved parties have always been able to, if not settle a conflict completely, at least alleviate it. The traditional approach has been to create coalitions, reduce the manifold, divergent interests to the struggle of two or three sides, to be concluded by someone’s victory. Peace and a post-war diplomatic settlement would then follow.
What do we see today? Russia and the U.S., which throughout the Syrian conflict have openly supported the principal warring parties, the government of the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, and the armed opposition, declare an intention to create a coalition to fight the terrorists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham after separating those terrorists from the fighters of the government army and Free Syrian Army.
Does it resemble any coalition from past wars? Is this union going to be a basis for victory and ensuing peace? Not likely. Never has any war ended as a result of the principal opponents creating a coalition with each other. If it is a coalition, it is a very post-modern one.
Even if the terrorists are regarded as a full-fledged third party to the conflict (though how can they have such status while not having the support of any of the great powers?), a victory over them would not imply an end to the war but would only be a return to the “fundamental” confrontation among Russia, the U.S., their Syrian stakeholders, and the neighboring regional powers.
Under the conditions where a decisive victory is impossible, the key obstacle on the way to peace is each side’s desire to avoid defeat. Russia, the U.S., Turkey, and even some of the smaller participants of the confrontation can responsibly say: “We cannot win, but we have enough military strength not to lose.” The ceasefire, bitter as it is to admit that, is only one form of sustaining that unstable and tragic balance.
Breaking the vicious circle of the Syrian crisis is hindered, among other things, by the system of political values that formed after the end of the Cold War — the very system that only recently was regarded as the most important political achievement of the past decades, evidence of progress and the improvement of morals.
The American view that the world inevitably follows the path of widening freedoms and democratization is pitted against Russian hopes for the strengthening of the principle of national sovereignty. Both views look fair in themselves, but once the world is faced with the necessity to settle a major regional crisis, it turns out that the principles maintained by the great powers do not help, but rather stand in the way, as they prevent the sides from using the tools that were employed in similar situations in the past.
Both the concept of democratization and the concept of sovereignty reject the old colonial discourse according to which the large, strong powers bore responsibility for the fate of small, weak countries, dependent territories and colonies. Today’s common belief is that “humanity has turned the page” and that there is no return to colonialism. However, hundreds of thousands of Syrian war victims raise doubts about the truth of that.
Although it is never admitted aloud, the U.S. and Russia can be seen to act more and more openly as classic colonial powers. No vocal objections have been heard to the format of the Geneva negotiations, which did not provide for any real representation of Syria’s Assad, or the opposition, or even the regional powers.
It is not quite clear to what extent all of those unrepresented parties are going to be informed about the contents of the five secret documents signed by Lavrov and Kerry. Is it not that the very fact of this secrecy provides clear evidence of a return to the long-condemned practices of behind-the-scenes collusion of the high and mighty of this world?
As a natural consequence of this trend, practical consultations may begin on the division of Syria in some form. If that course can really help find the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel and solve the bloody conflict, who will dare to reject it on the grounds that it “does not conform with the principles of the 21st century”?
The most important question today is whether the U.S. and Russia, which have ventured to take responsibility for the future of Syria, can strike the right balance between their political principles, national interests, and humanitarian considerations.
Also read Russia Direct's Report: "Russia's New Strategy in the Middle East"
Unfortunately, the fate of Syria falls more and more in the hands of non-regional powers, and there is no guarantee that for Russia and the U.S., the political priority will be achieving piece in the Syrian land, rather than, say, using warfare in Syria to inflict indirect damage to each other in the context of “Cold War 2.0”. In the latter case, which is, unfortunately, more than likely, the new Syrian ceasefire will be as fictional as all the previous ones.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.