From Russia's standpoint, the Syrian ceasefire agreement still faces serious challenges ahead. The good news, though, is that the U.S. appears willing to accept Russia as an equal and constructive partner in Syria.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, meet in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, Sept. 9, 2016, to discuss the crisis in Syria. Photo: AP
The Syrian ceasefire agreement reached by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Sept. 9 in Geneva came as a surprise for regional experts. While the news of a ceasefire deal was positive, it still provoked serious concerns. For example, it was unclear why Moscow chose this precise moment to halt military actions instead of allowing the Syrian troops and its allies to destroy the militants in Aleppo.
From the military point of view, it is not a good time for a cessation of hostilities. This immediately led to allegations that the offensive of the government forces lost its strength and they simply didn't have the capability to seize Aleppo, which has turned into one of the main opposition strongholds. If this is the case, it diminishes the Syrian government’s bargaining power, while boosting the morale of the opposition.
In order to understand the thinking behind Moscow’s actions one has to pose a different question: How does the document agreed upon in Geneva by the heads of the U.S. and Russian foreign ministries change the dynamics of U.S.-Russia relations? The agreement itself is yet another attempt (out of the total of nine such attempts) to establish a ceasefire and encourage negotiations.
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It can be assumed that the main factor was a shift in the U.S. attitude towards Russia. Previously, Washington did everything in its power to conceal from the general public its partnership with Moscow aimed at resolving the crisis. Russian officials didn't hide their discontent with the fact that the Americans refused to recognize the Kremlin's constructive role even on such issues as the release of an American hostage in Spring 2015.
Meanwhile, the situation in Syria was spiraling out of control. On the eve of the U.S. presidential elections, this gave one more reason for the Republicans to criticize the Democrats, who were reluctant to openly accept the idea (voiced by Republican candidate Donald Trump on numerous occasions) that the Russians could play an essential role in resolving the Syrian crisis and that the Assad regime should remain in place.
This approach is gradually changing. Experts continue to speculate about the reasons for such changes. Based on journalists' observations, even the decision to send a U.S. delegation to Geneva was made unexpectedly, as if guided by an impulse. The fact that the talks lasted 15 hours shows that the parties came to Switzerland without any ready-to-sign documents and that such documents were negotiated on the spot. All this points to the fact that we are witnessing a diplomatic improvisation that came as a result of some unforeseen circumstances.
According to one of the versions, Kerry succeeded in overcoming the criticism and deep mistrust towards the Russian side coming from the Pentagon and the CIA, who were betting on training and arming the moderate opposition. However, the theory that Obama’s administration was influenced by the improving ratings of Donald Trump, who promised the voters to swiftly come to an agreement with Russia on the question of Syria, sounds much more plausible.
One way or another, this agreement became an important victory for Russian diplomacy. It is important for Moscow that the Geneva agreement formalizes what has been in place for a long time, but was vigorously denied by Washington – that is, the exchange of military information between the U.S. and Russia. However, it does not go beyond a more specific delimitation of the areas of responsibility in Syria, and during unofficial consultations, U.S. officials make it clear that there can be no joint operations.
Establishment of a Joint Implementation Center in Vienna with the participation of the representatives of the military and special forces of both countries will serve as a de facto acknowledgement that the United States considers Russia a key player in Syria and that it stands ready to cooperate despite the rivalry between the two countries in other regions (first and foremost, in Ukraine).
This brings Moscow one step closer to achieving its strategic goal – recognition by the U.S. that it is a full-fledged partner in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). Indeed, one of the most important goals of Russian foreign policy in recent years has been to prove to the West that it cannot ignore the Russian Federation when resolving the main global issues.
The official recognition by the U.S. of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the former Jabhat al-Nusra) as a terrorist organization, which will allow Russia to target this organization during its air strikes, is a significant tactical success for Russia. Previously, various militant groups and field commanders, including those who broke away from ISIS, invoked the name of this terrorist organization to rally support against Assad. Moreover, the radical Islamists traditionally represent the most capable part of the armed Syrian opposition. Without them, it would be difficult for Assad's opponents to mount any serious offensive.
At the same time, it is important to understand that from Russia's standpoint, the agreement between Lavrov and Kerry not only represents a successful outcome of negotiations, but also a serious challenge. Thus, in order to successfully launch the Joint Implementation Center, the ceasefire should hold for at least one week, and from the outset, the U.S. has placed on Moscow the responsibility for a possible breakdown of the process. Russia has claimed its status of an equal partner and now it has to prove itself capable of coping with this task and achieving progress in the peace process, including the exertion of pressure on Damascus, if needed.
However, the most difficult task still lies ahead. At the of the day, the agreement between Lavrov and Kerry should provide the necessary environment for an inter-Syrian dialogue. Kerry and other U.S. officials can claim all they want that the success of the whole process depends on Russia. In reality, it depends on the Syrians themselves, on their ability to compromise. So far the parties have been beating around the bush, and that’s led to the following counterproductive cycle: ceasefire – negotiation attempts – resumption of hostilities.
The negotiation process is a weak link. If the Americans accepted, even if not officially, the idea of Assad staying in power (at least until the establishment of provisional government), the Free Syrian Army and similar groups of the moderate opposition that are not ready to give up their demand for the current president to leave could attempt to work out an agreement. Meanwhile, Assad is determined to stay in power (at least in the nearest future).
Another persisting problem that was apparent from the outset of the conflict is the fractured character of the opposition and its inability to develop a unified constructive agenda. It remains a huge accumulation of diverse groups and parties unified solely by their demand for Assad’s resignation. Moreover, there is a new variable in the Syrian arena – the Turkish military that is now openly taking part in the conflict fighting mostly against the Kurds and only then against ISIS.
Finally, there are regional opposition sponsors, each one of them with their own vision of Syria's future. They, too, need to be convinced to support the settlement of the conflict. Most likely, this will largely depend on the efforts of the United States.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.