Six years ago this spring, the mass protest movement in the Middle East reached Syria. But the Syrian crisis, even though it is part of the disease that has affected the region, is somewhat different. Syria is the Arab ignition point where many wires of global confrontation of the early 21st century connect. The Syrian conflict has aggravated the fundamental Russia-West differences that developed over the change of governments in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya and, recently, Ukraine. The Syrian conflict has highlighted new global and regional challenges, such as international terrorism and its obsolete caliphate ideology, waves of migrants sweeping across Europe, the use of chemical weapons for the first time since WWI, and growing Sunni-Shia hostility, echoing religious wars in Islam’s history. At this turning point in the development of the Middle East, Syria has become the battlefield of Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two leading centers of confrontation in the Muslim world.
Because of alarming developments in Syria over the past five years, Russia-U.S. relations have changed several times. Initially, they waged fierce battles in the U.N. Security Council and at other international organizations on the issue of internationalizing the internal Syrian conflict. The West proposed resolutions that would have prodded events in Syria under the Libyan scenario and the external Syrian opposition pinned its hopes on this. In that difficult situation, Russia continued to insist on resolutions that comply with international law and did its best to prevent a military intervention. Direct military interference in Syria — not the same as Libya by a long way — would have resulted in the worst possible consequences for the region and the rest of the world.
Over time, the political effects of the attempts to demonize Russia have fizzled out. As hostilities dragged out and Syria was rapidly turning into a breeding ground for international terrorism, Russia‘s arguments sounded more and more rational. Shortly before she resigned as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton warned of “extremists” trying “to hijack the Syrian revolution.” This marked the transition to calmer and more businesslike discussions on the scale of challenges facing both Russia and the United States.
But the gap between admitting certain facts and making concrete foreign policy conclusions was still very large.
The United States and the European Union made a big mistake when they recognized the foreign group of Syrian opposition as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people and denounced the government of President Bashar Assad as illegal. This encouraged the ragtag opposition to believe in their military victory. But this also limited the U.S. ability for diplomatic maneuver and for influencing the opposition, including those armed opposition groups which were rapidly yielding to Saudi influence. Meanwhile, Russia maintained its realistic stance in the Syrian conflict, which was aimed at preventing the further destabilization and the possible spread of violence and destruction to neighboring countries.
The Geneva Communique of June 30, 2012 created the foundation for intra-Syrian negotiations. But this potential was not realized at the Geneva conference in 2014. The Syrian National Council, a Syrian opposition coalition, was not fully prepared for the talks and kept advancing preliminary conditions. The Syrian government was overconfident and sometimes contemptuous of its negotiating partners, describing all of them as terrorists. It appears that at that time Russia overestimated Damascus’s abilities and gave it too much leeway.
The failure of the second Geneva meeting was followed by a political lull period, although Russia more than once urged its American partners to back the provisions of the 2012 Geneva Communique with a U.N. Security Council resolution and to also engage a regional track. Meanwhile, fighting escalated and was becoming more violent. This increased violence almost ran out of control as it acquired a deadly dynamic of its own and nearly pushed the Syrian state to the verge of destruction. Mr. Assad‘s secular government was about to be replaced by a motley crew of Islamic militants, who were managing to join forces in their fight to overthrow Mr. Assad despite their differences.
Developments in Syria reached a critical moment by the fall of 2015. It became obvious that the regional partners of Russia and the United States were exploiting their masters’ differences in order to achieve their own goals in this dangerous game. Russia‘s direct involvement in Syria and its call for creating a broad counterterrorist coalition boosted international coordination, no matter what form it assumed. The Russian Aerospace Forces’ operation in Syria helped balance internal forces, and this in turn created the right conditions for a joint search for compromise political solutions. Despite a crisis in their bilateral relations, Russia and the United States were the first to sense that the time was right for a cease-fire. By that time, they had also coordinated their approaches to the Syrian settlement.
Russia and the United States agree on many fundamental issues, including that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict, that the Islamic State must be defeated and that Syrians themselves must negotiate the political future of their country with international assistance. They also agree that there is a direct link between reaching agreements in Syria and routing international terrorism. Russia and the United States stand for preserving Syria‘s territorial integrity and for implementing political reforms that will not affect state institutions. In other words, the Syrian government should not be overthrown in the manner of Iraq and Libya, but should be reformed on the basis of national reconciliation.
Another important element is that the ongoing efforts to restore peace must be based on international law, a stance which Russia has always advocated, including the joint statements that were adopted at the multilateral meetings in Vienna and formalized in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254. These documents include not just the guidelines for the settlement and subsequent rehabilitation of the Syrian state but also a detailed road map for a transition period. Moreover, the work of the International Syria Support Group now involves influential regional countries, including Iran. And lastly, the intra-Syrian talks are being held under conditions of a successful cease-fire, which appears to be holding.
These positive trends in Syria are encouraging, but there are many problems ahead that can cut this fragile process short at any time.
Provocations can be staged by the many armed groups that have not committed themselves to honor the cease-fire, primarily Jabhat al-Nusra, which is closely connected with some members of the so-called Riyadh Delegation at the Geneva talks. A settlement is also hindered by the fact that the external parties cannot agree on who should be considered terrorists and with whom they can discuss the future of the Syrian state. Obviously, Syria cannot remain as it was in 2011. But neither should it become an Islamic state based on a scenario that has been rejected in Egypt. Syria is one of the few Arab countries that has had a secular government for centuries. Can the jihadis actually attain politically the goals in Syria that they have not been able to attain militarily? The answer to this question can only be given in the course of negotiations.
At the same time, the conflicting parties and regional players, on whom the Syrian opposition depends too strongly, can fail to correctly assess the military and political situation in Syria. After an agreement was reached on Iran‘s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia abandoned its shadow diplomacy in favor of a more aggressive policy in the region, just at a time when the departing U.S. administration cannot seriously influence it. And for this reason Turkey may emerge as the spoiler.
And lastly, Damascus’s actions are not entirely predictable. It has attempted to violate the international agreements sealed in Resolution 2254, for example by setting parliamentary elections for April 14 and by announcing plans both for early presidential elections and for the drafting a new constitution. Under the international agreements that have been reached, these issues must be coordinated during the intra-Syrian talks and should be overseen by a transitional government.
Nevertheless, there is a degree of optimism regarding the mission of the U.N.-appointed international intermediary, Staffan de Mistura. There is hope that he can enjoy greater success than his predecessors, especially if he relies on international support further backed by U.S.-Russian mutual understanding and close military-political coordination. Only by settling the Syrian crisis will the international community be able to focus on routing international terrorism at the heart of the Arab world.
⦁ Alexander Aksenyonok, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, is an expert in Arab studies, a member of the Expert Council of the Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee, and a member of the Russian International Affairs Council.
The US-Russia Crosstalk is a joint initiative of the Kommersant newspaper and Valdai Club in Russia and The Washington Times and Center for National Interest in the United States aimed at fostering a dialog on strategic engagement between the two countries.