Political gains for Russia outweigh military success in Syria

Drawing by Dmitri Divin

Drawing by Dmitri Divin

Although its military intervention in Syria has not brought a decisive military breakthrough, Russia has fulfilled the primary political goals of its "Syrian gambit," gaining considerably in stature. The next stage, of trying to arrive at a settlement of the conflict in Syria, will pose very difficult, near insurmountable, problems for participating countries.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted a resolution on December 18, delineating the main contours of a political resolution of the conflict in Syria. While the text does not contain any breakthrough ideas, the unanimous decision in itself reflects the key players' new determination to end Syria’s raging internal conflict.

The shift in international focus to the regulatory process is definitely related to the outcome of Russia's military campaign in Syria in 2015, and to the challenges it 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 power now appears in his favour.

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

On equal terms

The most important sign that the “gambit” had paid off was the convergence of Russian and American interests, reflected 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 outcome of Kerry's visit.

The talks were held on a Russian-American model that Moscow had been promoting unsuccessfully for a while; the model of geopolitical parity. Two superpowers, who perceive themselves more responsible than anyone else in maintaining global security, discussing, confidentially, tête-à-tête, the most pressing global issues; making joint decisions and mobilizing others within the UNSC framework to support them.

For Washington this is still only an instrumental approach, limited to Syria and the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists, 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 a "situational but equal partnership" suits it more.

While 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 programme, matters in the world improve. And they are likely to improve further after cooperation on Syria and the joint fight against ISIS.

Kerry even said that Washington is not pursuing regime change now 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 December 18, even though 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, the situation is back to basically where it was 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 was expected. The "liberation of territory" can be measured in kilometres. Damage has been done to the terrorists’ infrastructure, but there has been no turnaround.

The Iranians have experienced terrible losses and are now reducing their land contingents. The Syrian army has serious problems with lack of 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 his end-of-year press conference, supporting the status quo and prolonging the war, which fortunately has not brought 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 terrorists breaking into the Russian base in Syria, or as a result of a Turkish ground invasion to protect its supply channels to the insurgents.

Energies could, alternately, be directed along the diplomatic route and efforts, from a position of strength, could be made to stop the war in dignified conditions. This will be the main challenge in 2016.

Quick success cannot be counted upon. The sequence of steps and the timeframe stipulated in the UN Security Council resolution are too ambitious. The negotiation process will take 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 be part of Syria's new government. Everyone except the Syrian opposition has agreed that Assad will remain in power during the transition period. The UNSC 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 a specialist on international relations.

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