Moscow, Washington, and Damascus: Is Cooperation Really Possible?
WASHINGTON—Since launching a bombing campaign in Syria in late September, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ended the West’s attempt to isolate Russia and has ensured that Moscow will have to be part of the solution to the Syrian crisis. As the international community awaits the fate of the latest cease-fire and Putin highlights Russia’s constructive role in securing the agreement, Western and Arab skepticism about Russia’s true intentions remains high. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has promised that the United States has a “Plan B” if the ceasefire fails, while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insists that “there is no such thing [as a Plan B] and can never be.”
What are Russia’s interests in Syria? The main goal is to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad and ensure that it remains in power. Russia does not acknowledge that Assad’s bombing of his own population has created recruits for the self-proclaimed Islamic State group (ISIS). If Assad is eventually eased out, then Russia wants to have a say in who his successor is, so as to protect Russia’s political and military equities in Syria, including its naval base at Tartus and its new air base at Latakia. Hence Russia’s has targeted opposition groups in the west of Syria, some of whom the United States and its coalition partners support. The Russians have made clear that they deem all opposition groups to be terrorists, and they have not been focusing on bombing ISIS. The current cease fire agreement allows for continuing attacks on certain terrorist groups and it remains to be seen how the Russians will interpret this. They may well use it to continue bombing a variety of opposition groups.
Russia’s aims in Syria are also broader. Its military campaign is designed to re-establish a Russian presence in the wider Middle East, regaining influence it lost after the Soviet collapse. In recent months, it has strengthened ties with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, to name a few. Indeed, it is improving ties with countries who oppose the Iranian and Russian-backed Assad regime, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Putin has now ensured that Russia is once again a key regional player.
Since defeating ISIS is not a priority for Russia, and bombing civilian targets is a key part of Moscow’s strategy, a by-product of Moscow’s campaign has been to increase the flow of refugees to Europe. Russian actions are exacerbating the migrant crisis within the European Union, a fact that has greatly disturbed German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her EU partners.
The Syrian theater encompasses several proxy wars, and the question is whether they will remain proxies. While Russia and the United States are working together on some aspects of the Syrian crisis, they have different ideas about what Syria’s future should be. They have also been targeting different groups in their bombing campaigns and continue to coordinate to deconflict their respective air missions. Iran and Saudi Arabia are arrayed against each other in Syria as Saudi suspicions about Iran’s future regional ambitions grow. Riyadh is determined to check what it views as Teheran’s aspiration to use the breathing space following its nuclear deal with the international community to become a regional hegemon. Russia and Turkey are also involved in a proxy war in Syria. Since the Turkish downing of a Russian plane last December, Moscow has broken relations with Ankara and the mutual invective is growing. Turkey is angered by Russia’s support of Kurdish groups and it opposes the Russian-backed Assad regime. There is some concern that this particular proxy war could eventually produce armed conflict between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member, raising questions about what the United States and its allies would do if hostilities broke out.
The Syrian maelstrom has confounded most of the players involved because of its seeming intractability. Certainly the United States is grappling with how to devise a more effective strategy to end the war and alleviate the human suffering by providing humanitarian relief. But at this point Russia has inserted itself as the go-to country if the crisis is to be resolved. Not only is Moscow accepted as a legitimate player in the conflict but most Western countries believe that it is impossible to secure peace without Kremlin buy-in. Yet it is important to focus not on what Moscow says, but what it does. For Russia, the solution in Syria is a strengthened Assad regime that has crushed the opposition, with the possibility that Syria may eventually be divided with Assad controlling the west of the country and ISIS the east. Would this be acceptable to the United States and its allies? If not, then the current push for cooperation may be unsuccessful and Plan B will have to be implemented.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.