Was the Syria deal doomed from the start?

The fall of Assad would enable the U.S. to oust Iran from the Levant 
and strengthen Israel.

The fall of Assad would enable the U.S. to oust Iran from the Levant 
and strengthen Israel.

East News
Only a ground operation can defeat ISIS but Washington and Moscow cannot convince their allies to take part in one. As the stalemate continues, the death toll mounts.

A package of five documents on Syria agreed by the United States and Russia was presented by the parties as a real breakthrough. According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the ceasefire plan was a “turning point” for the conflict. But the ceasefire lasted only a week in which there was no real cessation of hostilities. One of its major objectives was not achieved: The opening of the road for the passage of humanitarian convoys to the besieged city of Aleppo, whose hundreds of thousands of residents are in urgent need of aid.

Parties to the conflict have accused each other of violating the agreements. Russia said members of the U.S.-led western coalition had carried out a deliberate strike on the Syrian army positions near Deir ez-Zor, which killed 62 Syrian soldiers, and the UN Security Council met on Sept. 18 in an emergency session at the request of Moscow.

But the following day the U.S. blamed Bashar alAssad’s troops and Russia for a strike on a UN humanitarian convoy that killed around 20 people. The Russian Defense Ministry denied that its aircraft were involved. According to Russian aerial reconnaissance, Jabhat al-Nusra militants launched a massive offensive on Aleppo on Sept. 19, in the area where the UN convoy was traveling.

Lost illusions

The latest developments confirm the fears of experts who are skeptical about the prospects of the U.S.-Russian agreements because of the involvement in the conflict of too many players with very different interests. However, the agreements between Moscow and Washington are indeed a “turning point” for the conflict and really do bring it closer to an end.

The interrupted ceasefire is the tip of the iceberg; the parties did not disclose all the provisions of the agreement for a reason. The key factor was that the parties had lost their illusions, recognizing their limitations in Syria and the danger of the Islamic State.

“To achieve greater arrangements, it is necessary to sacrifice small things,” says Vladimir Avatkov, director of the Center for Middle East Studies, International Relations and Public Diplomacy. “Taking into consideration the existing situation in the north of Syria, all of the parties are gradually coming to the conclusion that it is necessary to end what was unleashed there.”

Moscow began the air operation in Syria last September. During this time, it has been able to achieve a great deal – to stop ISIS’s triumphant advance and also to prevent the collapse of the Syrian state. While it was not the instigator of the Syrian civil war, Moscow turned out to be one of its main beneficiaries. Russia has proved its willingness to defend its allies and international law; has returned to the Middle East region; and has managed to acquire new customers in the arms market.

The problem for Moscow is that in order to further advance on ISIS, the air operation is not sufficient. “The Russian air forces and the American-led coalition bomb terrorists from the air, but this is not enough,” Leonid Isayev, a senior professor of political science at the Higher School of Economics, says. He adds: “A ground operation is needed, but neither Moscow nor Washington can coerce their allies to carry out this operation.”

Assad’s troops are now exhausted – several years of war have battered the Syrian army. Iran is theoretically capable of a ground operation, but is stopped by the prospect of a transformation of the Syrian war into a Shia-Sunni slaughter (Syria is a Sunni country, Iran is Shia).

Moscow also cannot consider Turkey to be the main driver for ground action, as it has different interests from those of Moscow and is not an ally of the Syrian government troops. Russia’s further involvement in the campaign is fraught with the risk of being drawn deeply into the conflict, which it seeks to avoid. Moscow can take quite a flexible position, for example, at the talks on the federalization of Syria or the fate of Assad’s regime. But it will lose its flexibility in the event of becoming more deeply involved and bogged down in the region.

The Syrian agreement has become for Washington a kind of documentation of losses, because its entrance into the campaign was initially associated exclusively with the intention to topple Assad’s regime and transfer the country’s governance to the hands of the opposition.

“The United States has long regarded Syria as a strategic enemy in the Middle East. This is the only state that remains on the list of state sponsors of terrorism since the establishment of the list in 1979,” says Steven Heydemann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Valdai Club expert. The fall of the Assad regime would enable the Americans, in particular, to oust Iran from the entire Levant and to strengthen Israel’s security.

However, these objectives have not been achieved – the Americans were not able to ensure victory for the opposition. The secular Syrian opposition is also dissatisfied with the reluctance of the United States to give it real support against the Russian air forces, but the U.S. Congress will not agree to supply advanced weapons to militants, fearing that they may later fall into the hands of ISIS.

Washington's choice

“The U.S. attempt to work with the opposition did not bear fruit, so it is forced to contend with the existing alignment of forces,” Avatkov says. New threats have arisen, including ISIS, against the background of these failures.

Finally, the U.S. position in the region has greatly weakened in recent years. According to Richard Weitz, a senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute, relations with US allies – Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Egypt – have deteriorated, while wars are continuing in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

If the Americans are not able to stop their losses at their current level and do not achieve at least the departure of Assad (which they can describe as a victory), their position could further weaken. Washington will have to choose – whether to finally give Syria to Moscow and Tehran, or to start its own ground operation. The other parties to the Syrian conflict have been ambivalent about the agreement. They will have to adapt their goals and objectives in the conflict to the conditions of the Russian-American compromise, and some of them are not enthusiastic about this prospect.

Dashed hopes

The Syrian authorities represented by Assad’s regime are unhappy that they are forced to cease operations in parts of the country. Damascus hoped to regain control over the whole of Syria, with the support of Moscow and Tehran. Without the Iranian and Russian backing, Syria’s battered army is able at best only to defend the territory it now controls.

The Iranians also have an ambiguous attitude to the deal. On the one hand, the last thing they need is any American involvement in Syria, but at the same time the deal helps end the very costly war, on which Tehran is spending millions of dollars and losing hundreds of its soldiers.

Iran became involved in Syria not out of choice but because it believed it had to prevent Syria’s transfer to the management of its strategic enemies, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Tehran believes that this would have been inevitable if the opposition forces had been victorious in Syria. Now the Iranians have achieved their immediate goal, getting the basic consent of the Russian Federation and the United States to preserve the regime of Bashar al-Assad (even if without Assad himself).

For Turkey, a major American ally, the compromise represented an opportunity to rectify the mistakes that it had made. But the Syrian civil war became a strategic loss for Ankara. Its initial objectives have not been achieved, and new threats have emerged as a result of its attempts.

By supporting the militants, Erdogan hoped to overthrow the regime of Assad and bring a pro-Turkish government to power in Damascus. However, the bottom line is that it had an influx of millions of refugees, economic losses, a hostile Syria, problems in its relations with Russia and Iran, as well as the prospects for the emergence of the next – this time Turkish – Kurdistan.

In an attempt to repair the damage, Turkey has chosen to normalize relations with Russia, and also changed its approach to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, expressing its willingness to negotiate with it and recognize its legitimacy.

Avatkov says: “After the attempted military coup, Erdogan is interested that the only legitimate way to change power must be a democratic one.” And this normalization, coupled with the U.S.-Russian agreements has allowed the Turks – with the consent of Moscow, Tehran and Damascus – to send troops to northern Syria to fight against the Kurds.

The party most dissatisfied with the agreement is Saudi Arabia. Riyadh sees the Syrian conflict as a peripheral war to deter Iran, so the Saudis are not interested in ending the bloodshed.

And now, after the Russian-Turkish and Russian-U.S. compromises, as well as the expected normalization of relations between Damascus and Ankara, Saudi Arabia finds itself in diplomatic isolation. Riyadh will not be able to sabotage the U.S.-Russian agreements: That would be likely to affect its already difficult relationship with the United States.

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