The United States and Russia have brokered a truce in Syria in hopes of resuming United Nations-backed peace talks on March 9. Today News-Decoder correspondent Rashad Mammadov looks at what Russia hopes to gain in the five-year-old conflict.
By Rashad Mammadov
Once again, foreign forces have made a fateful decision concerning Syria. Once again, Russia is in the mix. And once again, Russia may look like a peacemaker.
But how is Russia faring in Syria?
So far, Russia has managed to emerge as a kingpin in the conflict, with air strikes the spearhead of its strategy. Its bombs have helped shift the momentum in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a war that has killed more than 250,000 people and triggered refugee crises in neighboring states and Europe.
The current balance of power between Assad and rebels is generally acceptable to Moscow. It is not an ideal scenario — not like taking control of Aleppo and then launching peace talks — but it is much better than if Turkey, Saudi Arabia or their Western allies opened a second front in the five-year-old war.
Anything that could erode Russia’s influence will be aggressively opposed, even if it’s Assad himself. Note that the Syrian president softened his rhetoric dramatically after Russia announced its commitment to peace negotiations.
Everyone gets something out of the truce, Russia included.
For Russia, the biggest gain has been postponing Assad’s defeat without getting bogged down in an expensive military adventure. Russian support has helped the regime claw back some lost territories in the northern and western parts of the country. Now, with the threat of intervention by Turkish or Saudi forces hanging over the conflict, Moscow’s immediate goal is to establish a status quo.
The West expects Putin to demonstrate a willingness to compromise.
But Russia has not gained everything it wanted.
Although peace talks would help Russia gain some diplomatic ground, the United States remains the main player in the game. It was U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry who voiced the idea of peace talks after an earlier format in Geneva failed. Washington has its own interests, and to some degree it is trying to stem the flood of refugees to the European Union, its main ally.
Like the others, Russia was in large part forced to accept a ceasefire, setting limits on how much Russian President Vladimir Putin can expect to gain. The West expects Putin to demonstrate a willingness to compromise, but they obviously don’t see the ceasefire in Syria as proof.
Indeed, a few days after the ceasefire took effect, European powers, under pressure from U.S. President Barack Obama, maintained economic sanctions on Russia. Russia’s hopes to lift bilateral relations with the United States to a new level and negotiate as equal partners failed.
Kerry then stated that “Plan B options” were being considered in Syria in the event a political transition process does not unfold there. Plan B is believed to include military action, which many believe could lead to the partition of Syria.
Putin has not achieved his main goal in Syria — acceptance of bipolar parity of power with the United States. He has adopted an aggressive stance, but the weakened condition of Russia’s military and its economy do not support his ambitions. Even a limited military operation has become a burden on the stagnating Russian economy. If Putin wants to be considered a trustworthy partner, he needs to show an ability to compromise.
Rashad Mammadov is a PhD candidate at Indiana University’s Media School, with a research focus on political communication. He holds a master’s degrees in journalism and mass communication. He worked as a reporter and editor for almost a decade in newspapers and magazines covering international politics and media economics.