We already have got used for international relations to have a geometric structure (without traditional clear lines between systemic adversaries) and to borrow traits from chaos theory (system anarchy itself is defining for the global order). While Russia is at loggerheads with the U.S. in the Ukrainian file – especially in what concerns the annexation of the Crimean peninsula – things are not the same in the case of Syria, where a cruel and complex civil war is taking place. Of course, there is a recent precedent, namely the American-Russian cooperation in the file concerning the conclusion of the nuclear agreement with Iran in July 2016. In the latter case, the cooperation between the group of five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany was decisive for a positive result that should remove what at one point seemed very likely: a war with Iran. However, in this case there was group cooperation, not just bilateral cooperation.
How are these two great powers positioned in the complex Syrian civil war file? Are they partners in identifying and implementing a solution? Or adversaries?
To answer these questions a series of preliminary explanations that have to do with the recent history of the conflict in that country have to be given.
First: when, in 2011, at the start of the “Arab Spring,” Syria seemed to be skirted by its waves, many wondered why the Assad regime was enduring. But that did not last long, because a devastating civil war erupted, Damascus officials having reacted with brutal repression against the population’s peaceful demonstrations demanding democratic reforms. Foreign intervention followed, many neighbouring and distant states becoming direct actors in the devastating civil war.
Second: from the start, Russia and the U.S. took opposite positions.
The U.S. asked the Assad regime to stop its repression and to negotiate peacefully with the protesters. When Damascus refused to start this process, the U.S. did not hesitate, faced with the obvious massacres committed against the civilian population – which generated an exodus of millions of people to neighbouring countries, today half of Syria’s population being in the category of internally or externally displaced refugees –, to ask for the removal of the dictator president. Moreover, President Obama drew a “red line” that would have led to American military intervention if Assad crossed it.
On the other hand, Russia – whose client Syria had been during the Cold War and which had a military base at Tartus, the Russian Mediterranean squadron using it as a docking and resupply/repair point – considered the opposition toward the Assad regime the expression of domestic and international terrorism. The pro-Assad position adopted by Moscow became permanent once foreign intervention in the internal war in Syria amplified. Geopolitical calculations formed the basis of this support, Russia fearing that the replacement of the Assad regime would result in the loss of its only remaining client in the Middle East. Alongside this motivation, Russia’s fear of what it calls “coloured revolutions” or the West’s interventionist “regime change” strategy was just as powerful. Moscow materialized its first rescuing intervention for the Assad regime in August 2013, when the Assad regime was blamed for the use of poisonous gas against civilians and American military intervention was in the pipeline (now it has been proved that anti-government forces killed numerous civilians in that manner precisely in order to spark a U.S. intervention). Back then, Russia convinced the White House not to intervene, in exchange for the Assad regime abandoning its chemical weapons of mass destruction under international control. It was an agreement that U.S. “hawks” are using even today as an example with which to sanction the Obama Administration for weakness and incompetence.
Third: gradually, the Syrian civil war became a collection of heterogeneous forces confronting the Assad regime, difficult to coalesce in a single faction because of their affiliation to international terrorist organizations (including Al Qaeda) and the fact that they are receiving stipends from external forces with obscure goals. In the summer of 2014, the threatening force of the Islamic Caliphate appeared (whose origin is highly disputed), taking over vast swaths of territory overlapping the Syrian-Iraqi border. The US organized a coalition of states that launched airstrikes against this identified terrorist group, relying on Kurdish ground forces that engaged the Daesh fighters. The war picture became increasingly abstruse in Syria, factions not being easy to circumscribe, especially because of the contradictory interests of the external actors involved. Starting in September 2015, Russian airpower intervened in the war too, and, after the Paris terrorist attacks in November, France and the United Kingdom became increasingly active in the air too. By December, a “coalition of coalitions” had already been formed, taking the fight to Daesh: the coalition organized by the U.S., consisting of over 60 states; the coalition of Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey (over 30 states), mostly involved against Assad’s forces; and the coalition of Syrian government forces backed by Hezbollah militias from Lebanon and Iraqi militias, but also by Russian air forces and by forces sent by Iran, a coalition that is fighting the rebels. This “coalition of coalitions” managed to obtain a UN Security Council resolution (18 December 2015) that gave the start to negotiations between the groups involved in the civil war and drafted a roadmap for peace. At the end of January 2016, peace negotiations started between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime, negotiations that broke off a few days later.
Fourth: The breaking of negotiations was blamed on Russia, which through her actions allegedly created different facts on the ground. Namely, by supporting the Assad regime forces’ action in northern Syria, it helped them lift the siege of Aleppo and cut the rebels’ lines of communication with Turkey. In this way, a new situation was taking shape in the civil war, only two valid forces being outlined in the confrontation: the Assad regime and Daesh. The situation was inconvenient for both Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which saw their proxies eliminated. The Obama Administration came under a wave of unprecedented criticism for having allegedly become a pawn in the Russian plan to prop up the Assad regime. This is the moment when the Munich ceasefire plan (February 12), sponsored by Russia and the U.S., intervened.
In the days that followed the Munich summit of the world’s foreign policy and security elite, events sped-up, especially because the U.S. and Russia had stipulated on February 12 that the ceasefire in Syria would become a reality in a week’s time. On February 17, the Pentagon informed the international public opinion that it had reached, as early as last October, an agreement with the Russian partners in what concerns the military developments on the Syrian front: “We provided a geographical area that we asked them to stay out because of the risk to U.S. forces. (…) This was a step we took to try to maintain their safety in a dangerous situation and this was a request that we made to the Russians outside the scope of the memorandum of understanding. Up to this point, the Russians have honoured this request.” Thus, the military actions of the Russian air forces took place in line with a plan jointly agreed, each side notifying the other about the actions taken. Certain events that took place during this period have to be reconsidered from the standpoint of their purpose and significance, having in mind for instance the shooting down of the Russian tactical bomber by Turkish fighter jets. But this was only the first surprise. The second was that, although the ceasefire sponsored by Russia and the U.S. did not take place on Friday (February 19) as expected, on Sunday, February 20, optimistic news appeared from this point of view too. According to the international press published on Sunday (February 21), John Kerry, head of U.S. diplomacy, announced that a “provisional agreement” was concluded between the U.S. and Russia on the ceasefire in Syria, its final touches pending on a final phone conversation between B. Obama and V. Putin. At the same time, in order to eliminate any kind of speculations, Kerry added that: “Make no mistake. The answer to the Syrian civil war will not be found in any military alliance with Assad. Let me make that clear.”
Of course, there are still issues left to finalize overall in this agreement, the important ones being those that concern the opposition groups labelled as terrorist and thus excluded from the agreement (a particular case is that of the ‘Al Nusra’ organization, which Moscow, unlike Washington, labels as “terrorist”) and Iran’s adherence to its stipulations. Just as significant are the reactions of the head of the Damascus regime, for whom the ceasefire with the insurgent groups and the start of a “roadmap” toward peace would also mean the start of the end of his own regime.
In a span of a few days, Assad stated on the one hand that he aims to recover the entire territory from the rebels and Daesh (February 12) and that he agrees with a ceasefire, but not one with the terrorists (February 21). Hence, the process is only just beginning and obstacles in the path of this American-Russian agreement on the ceasefire in Syria are not absent. On the possible backsliding of this process, a separate analysis is required. For the time being, something new has intervened on the Syrian front, thanks to the older cooperation between Russia and the U.S.
P.S. The agreement between the U.S. and Russia was signed on February 22.