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April 15, 2021

Syria: The most serious crisis after the Cold War

After the ceasefire agreements concluded in February and September, 2016 – under USA and Russia sponsorship -, things seemed to be heading to a normalization in Syria, haunted by five years of civil war. Especially because, after the agreement in February, talks between the groups involved in the Syrian civil war started in Geneva, and for a few weeks, things went fairly well towards reaching the objectives provided by the UN Security Council’s resolution dated December 18 (the steps of the peace process).

Although the last ceasefire agreement – the one in September, 2016 – was concluded after long negotiations between Russia and the US (at the level of Heads of the diplomatic chancelleries, namely J. Kerry and S. Lavrov) and the result lasted for a short time, maintaining it for a week should mean the star of a military cooperation between Russia and the US against ISIL. Basically, an unprecedented military cooperation between US and Russia, including the intelligence field. What was expected has already happened. From the American side, there was an immediate and obvious hesitation of the militaries to cooperate with Russians in the intelligence field, and this trend influenced the end of this second truce in Syria. But something came to speed up this denouement. An accidental American bombing (together with US allies) against some troops of the official Damascus near Aleppo, was followed in less than 48 hours by the destruction of a convoy of aid that was going to the same city, by the Russian aviation (is supposed with a degree of certainty).

The Americans appreciated this is too much, especially since Russians and their allies continued to bomb Alep, obviously aiming to eliminate the democratic opposition (supported only by US and the Sunni states) from the Syrian civil war, to let only the forces led by Assad or the terrorist ones, namely ISIL. Russia, in its alliance with Assad, tries to impose this simplification by force, as an alternative for the US and their allies, given that according to the agreement between Russia and the US, ISIL was already assumed as a common enemy whose destruction was mandatory. In the absence of any non-terrorist opposition against Assad, he should become automatically, as a result of a possible victory in Aleppo, the only local ally of the anti-ISIL coalition (the other local ally, the Kurdish forces, was attacked by the Turkish army entered in Syria, as well as by Assad).

The complicated situation on the Syrian scene received a new vector of complexity on October 3, 2016, when the US State Department announced the suspension of the cooperation with Russia. On a more general plan of the relationships between the US and Russia, this “movement” is one of the most important developments after the Cold War. A former counsellor of the White House interpreted this decision as follows: “Cooperation over Syria was the Obama administration’s last and best shot for arresting the downward spiral in the bilateral relationship with Russia/…/mistrust and hostility toward the United States by the Russian leadership is real and growing. It is going to be the driving force behind Russian external behaviour for many years to come.” Regarding the developments in Syria, which is in a devastating civil war since five years, the American decision is not less important. The US State Department’s spokesman commented the decision taken by USA like this: “This is not a decision that was taken lightly/…/United States spared no effort in negotiating and attempting to implement an arrangement with Russia aimed at reducing violence, providing unhindered humanitarian access and degrading terrorist organizations operating in Syria /…/Unfortunately, Russia failed to live up to its own commitments. Rather, Russia and the Syrian regime have chosen to pursue a military course, inconsistent with the cessation of hostilities, as demonstrated by their intensified attacks against civilian areas”. We can clearly see form the above quoted statement that the essential reason of the suspension of cooperation was that Russia has continued to aim to turn Assad into the only interlocutor of the anti-ISIL coalition, and thus to entrench the victory of the leader of Damascus in the civil war.

That was unacceptable for Washington, since the American target in Syria is to remove Assad from the power for the guilt of bloodily repressing the opposition. Of course, the file of the relationship between Moscow and Washington, lasting since the WW II, when an alliance that was beneficial from the systemic point of view was developed, being followed by a fierce competition on the edge of the nuclear abyss in the bipolar age, as well as by a sinusoid of the cooperation and competition after the Cold War, has its own specific coding of the relations between the great powers, with a huge sui generis load in this particular case. But such a coding is subject of a large debate between experts, without any certainty that it could be correctly decoded, every time when an important event takes place in the relationship between the two forces.

When President Barack Obama publically announced that Russia is a regional force, not a global one, immediately after the annexation of Crimea, in March, 2014, the general interpretation was that the status of a superpower which it had during the Cold War was refused to Moscow, and this was frustrating for Russia. The message was that the US, as a global hegemon, doesn’t intend to appreciate this crisis in Crimea as an event that could affect the global strategical balance, so they will not involve massively in solving the file of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. But this message sent by Obama was also decoded in another key, the one of the signal triggered for a regional “treatment” of the conflict that started. Being without a global stake, this local conflict must not prevent the bilateral cooperation between Russia and the US on other files. Besides, Washington and Moscow have tightly cooperated in the case of the nuclear Iranian file, successfully concluded in July, 2015, when hard economic sanctions were applied to Russia by the US and their allies. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian crisis was subject to a local treatment that was discussed within the “Normandy format” (Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany), where Washington didn’t brought its contribution, even if there were certain opinions expressed in this direction at a certain moment. Another file in which the cooperation between Russia and the US has continued, despite the “local” accidents occurred in time, was the Syrian crises.

This cooperation wasn’t expressed only at strategic level, since the US were not against Moscow’s action in order to become a direct player in Syria, thus being a military presence in the Mideast starting with September 2015, after an absence of almost 50 years (since the Yom Kippur war, in 1973). But this tight cooperation also existed at the operational level, on the scene of the Syrian civil war, although the two great powers were supporting groups that were fighting between them (namely Assad against the moderate opposition), a peaceful solution of the conflict trying to be reached under the sponsorship offered by Washington and Moscow. In the same time, in the direct fight against the forces belonging to the so-called Islamic caliphate (ISIL), the Russian and the American parties have cooperated in military terms (the coordination cell) to avoid unwanted collisions or to duplicate the blows on the terrorist groups.

This Russian-American cooperation, which was obvious for more than one year in Syria, was suspended by the US on October 3, 2016, right after the conclusion of an operational military cooperation agreement that is almost unique in the history. In our effort on decoding the reasons of this unexpected breakage, we must assess what it means for the future of the whole international system, as well as for Mideast.

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