Russia's political achievements in Syria eclipse modest military success

Drawing by Dmitri Divin

Drawing by Dmitri Divin

While Russia can say that it has accomplished the primary political goals of its "Syrian gambit," its military campaign has not brought the desired breakthrough. In trying to achieve a settlement to the situation in Syria, the participating countries will encounter very difficult, practically insurmountable problems.

On Dec. 18 the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution delineating the main contours of the political resolution of the conflict in Syria. And though the text does not contain any breakthrough ideas, the fact of the unanimous decision alone reflects the key players' new determination to end Syria’s internal conflict.

The focus on the regulation process is definitely related to the results of Russia's military campaign in Syria in 2015, as well as to the challenges that we will face in 2016.

It is clear that the primary political goals of the "Syrian gambit" can be considered accomplished. The regional ally who was on the brink of military defeat has been saved, the threat of an armed overthrow of Bashar al-Assad has been removed and the military balance of strength is now in his favor.

The diplomatic blockade that Washington had been building against Russia since 2014 is now lifted. Strategic dialogue with the U.S., which was not simple to renew, is on a high level and its agenda is no longer limited to Ukraine. Moscow has been able to impose itself as a partner who is well equipped and prepared for decisive action in the fight against a global threat.

On equal terms

The most important sign of success was the convergence of Russian and American interests, which took place during U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's recent visit to Moscow, in providing joint solutions to the most serious international problems. The Kremlin has every reason to be happy with the results of Kerry's visit.

The talks were held according to a Russian-American model that Moscow had been promoting unsuccessfully for a long time, the model of geopolitical parity: two superpowers, which more than anyone else are responsible for global security, discussing - confidentially, tête-à-tête - the most pressing issues, making joint decisions and then mobilizing other countries within the UN Security Council framework to support them.

Obviously for Washington this is still only an instrumental approach, limited to Syria and the fight against Islamic State (ISIS), but relations have to begin somewhere.

There has been no "reset," and one is not expected. However, Moscow no longer needs it. The format of "situational but equal partnership" suits it more.

In Moscow, Kerry did not stop repeating that the U.S. and Russia must work together to solve the various international problems and when they do so, as in the case of the talks on the Iranian nuclear program, things in the world improve. And they will improve even more after cooperation on Syria and the joint fight against ISIS.

Kerry even said that the U.S. is not pursuing regime change in Syria. Moscow could not but praise such a correction in America's rhetoric and agreed to the ministerial meeting of the international contact group on Syria in New York on Dec. 18, even though just two days earlier it had thought the meeting would be premature.

This is the new format and the "new form" – a respectful confrontation.

Military success appears more modest

After three months of bombing we are back to basically where we were at the beginning of October, while the campaign's finish line is still beyond the horizon. The condition and combat capacity of the Syrian army and the "Iranian allies" are worse than were expected. The "liberation of territory" can be measured in kilometers. Damage has been done to the militants’ infrastructure but there has been no turnaround.

The Iranians have experienced horrible losses and are now reducing their land contingent. The Syrian army has serious problems with personnel. The number of victims among civilians is increasing and consequently so is the terrorist threat for Russia.

Moscow must now make a decision. It can continue "practicing," as Russian President Vladimir Putin said during the press conference, supporting the status quo and prolonging the war, which fortunately has not brought about significant losses and costs for Russia. Cynical as this may sound, tactically such a choice may even be more advantageous, since the continuation of the war prolongs "Russia's usefulness" to the West as a partner.

Russia can also strive for a full military victory by increasing its forces. But the "cost" could soon become extreme as a result of one large-scale terrorist act or the militants breaking into the Russian base in Syria, or as a result of a Turkish ground invasion to protect its supply channels to the insurgents.

Or, all energies can be directed along the diplomatic route and try, from an already strong position, to stop the war in dignified conditions. This is what will be the main challenge in 2016.

Quick success cannot be counted on. The sequence of steps and the timeframe stipulated in the UN Security Council resolution are too ambitious. The negotiation process will take up much more time than the planned six months. For now the main players have decided not to concentrate on their differences concerning the separate aspects of the resolution of the crisis, leaving them to be resolved at a later stage.

The main question that has been postponed is whether or not President Assad will participate in Syria's new government. Everyone except the Syrian opposition has agreed that Assad will remain in power during the transition period. The UN Security Council resolution does not say anything on this issue since Moscow would never have consented to a document indicating that the decision to remove the president of a sovereign country should be made outside the country. But this incertitude in itself is a form of compromise that allows the process to move ahead.

Vladimir Frolov is an international relations expert.

The opinion of the writer may not necessarily reflect the position of RBTH or its staff.

First published in Russian in

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