Andrew Korybko |
The “ceasefire” agreed to by Presidents Putin and Trump following their first-ever face-to-face meeting last week at the G20 is meant to advance a “political settlement” in the country by disempowering the Syrian Arab Army and therefore increasing the chances that President Assad will make more “compromises” to quickly end the war.
Last week’s announcement that Russia and the US agreed to a “ceasefire” in southwestern Syria has been met with joyous praise from many information outlets across the world, though these exuberant proclamations obscure the dark reality that there’s a lot of strategic risk involved with what’s been agreed to. Senior research fellow at the Institute for Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences Boris Dolgov spoke to Sputnik and succinctly summed up the pros and cons surrounding the “ceasefire” by saying that “The positive side is that combat activities have been suspended and the conflict is frozen. The negative one is that these zones risk turning into de-facto independent enclaves.” This is exactly what the author forecast in his early-May analysis for Regional Rapport titled “Syria: From ‘De-Escalation’ Zones To ‘Decentralization’ Units”, which explored the connection between these two Russian-led initiatives and the prospects that the Russian-written “draft constitution” for Syria could be used to bridge them together as part of the fabled “political solution” to the war.
The tangible on-the-ground outcome of this policy is Russia drafting “decentralization” clauses into the new Syrian Constitution, enforcing “de-escalation zones” in the country, and tying these two together as inseparable components of the so-called “political solution”, which can only happen if Russia succeeds in consolidating the Syrian “opposition” into a unified force which “trusts” it enough to go ahead with these initiatives. In pursuit of that, Russia has enacted several “ceasefires” which played to the “rebels’” advantage and also ramped up its diplomacy with their Turkish, Saudi, Qatari, and “Israeli” patrons.
The issue at hand nowadays is the effect that the recently implemented “ceasefire” in southwestern Syria will have in determining the course of the war and moving all players closer to a “negotiated settlement”. It’s indeed true that it stopped the fighting and therefore helped save lives, but moving beyond the immediate emotive consequences and more towards the far-reaching strategic ones, it becomes clear that this development is yet another example of Russia’s “balancing” strategy as applied to Syria.
To explain, Russia conceptualizes its 21st-century geostrategic role as being the supreme “balancing” force in the Eurasian supercontinent, and it can’t play this part without being on positive terms with all actors. On the international front, this takes the form of the “19th-Century Great Power Chessboard” paradigm whereby Russia prioritizes its engagement with similarly sized Great Powers at the perceived (key word) expense of its smaller- and medium-sized partners in order to advance the “greater good” of multipolarity, which in the Syrian context implies complex deal-making with all of the involved actors. The tangible on-the-ground outcome of this policy is Russia drafting “decentralization” clauses into the new Syrian Constitution, enforcing “de-escalation zones” in the country, and tying these two together as inseparable components of the so-called “political solution”, which can only happen if Russia succeeds in consolidating the Syrian “opposition” into a unified force which “trusts” it enough to go ahead with these initiatives. In pursuit of that, Russia has enacted several “ceasefires” which played to the “rebels’” advantage and also ramped up its diplomacy with their Turkish, Saudi, Qatari, and “Israeli” patrons.
Nevertheless, Lavrov didn’t seem too bothered by this, and remarked during the course of their conversation that “Your current visit confirms that intensive ties between Russia and Israel are regular, stable and based on trust.” In any ordinary encounter between official representatives, it would be unusual for the host to talk about “stable” and “trust-based” relations after their guest described “red lines” which are supposedly being used by them to “justify” bombing the host’s ally, but this just goes to show the “special” nature of Russian-“Israeli” relations.
It’s this last player, “Israel”, which has come to be one of Russia’s most important partners in the Mideast, particularly in the Syrian context. In fact, the author even argued in two back-to-back articles a few months ago for The Duran titled “Israel and Russia are NOT on the verge of war. They are allies!” and “What Russia said to Israel after the Palmyra raid” that Moscow sees Tel Aviv as a regional ally, drawing attention in a follow-up piece for Regional Rapport about how “Syria’s 10-Day Countdown Begins” to explain why Russia allowed “Israel” to bomb the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) with impunity over and over again in the run-up to President Putin’s G20 Summit with Trump. Plenty of diplomatic activity has taken place in the two weeks since then which further confirms the perception of a Russian-“Israeli” alliance, albeit a lopsided one where Russia apparently believes in the integrity of this arrangement while “Israel” attempts to manipulate it to its favor by turning its partner into a regional tool for promoting its interests.
The first piece of evidence in this direction is the visit of “Israeli” “parliamentary speaker” Yuli Edelstein to Moscow in the last couple days of July. While there, he told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that “fire, or what is being called ‘spillover fire,’ into Israeli territory is a red line that we will under no circumstances allow to be crossed, and we will not tolerate an Iranian presence on the border.” This “red line” warning came as “Israel” was already bombing the SAA and would continue to do so even in the days following Edelstein’s visit. Nevertheless, Lavrov didn’t seem too bothered by this, and remarked during the course of their conversation that “Your current visit confirms that intensive ties between Russia and Israel are regular, stable and based on trust.” In any ordinary encounter between official representatives, it would be unusual for the host to talk about “stable” and “trust-based” relations after their guest described “red lines” which are supposedly being used by them to “justify” bombing the host’s ally, but this just goes to show the “special” nature of Russian-“Israeli” relations.
Nearly a week later, Russia’s Deputy Ambassador to “Israel” Alexey Dobnin proudly declared in an interview that “Israel is very concerned about the fighting in Syria spilling over into Israel, and that as a result of the chaos, Iran and Hezbollah will emerge stronger at the end of the day. We are aware of that. Israel can fully count on Russia to take its interests into account in any future security, political or diplomatic arrangement having to do with Syria, which we hope to finalize in the near future.” It should come as no surprise then that Netanyahu called President Putin on the eve of the G20 Summit to, as the official Kremlin website describes it, “discuss the Middle East settlement and the situation in Syria” “in the context of joint efforts against international terrorism”. One day later, Presidents Putin and Trump announced that a “ceasefire” would enter into effect at the end of the weekend in southwestern Syria. Whether intentionally or not, this had the effect of formalizing the “buffer zone” that “Israel” had been trying to create for years between the occupied Golan Heights and the rest of Syria.
The abovementioned observation will probably shock some readers who were rock-solidly convinced that Russia supports Syria in every which way and is dedicated to protecting it from “Israel”, but the sore reality is that such preconceptions are an unfounded myth which has nothing at all to do with Moscow’s military mandate in the Arab Republic.
Amazingly, this “ceasefire” covers much more than just the immediate region abutting the occupied Golan Heights and the site of “Israel’s” latest bombing runs and includes all three of Syria’s southern provinces that reports say will be patrolled by Russian military police “coordinating” with the US and Jordan. It would be too egregious of a “balancing” affront to Moscow’s ally in Damascus if Russia openly stated that it was coordinating this “ceasefire” with “Israel”, whom Syria doesn’t “recognize” as an “independent state”, so it makes sense why it’s publicly working through the US and Jordan instead. Even so, “Israeli” newspaper Haaretz quoted unnamed sources a few days later who allegedly complained earlier this month about the possibility of Russian troops patrolling the occupied Golan border, and “Israeli” “Defense Minister” Avigdor Liberman officially declared on Monday that “Israel reserves its complete freedom of action, regardless of any understandings or developments.” Evidently, “Israel” doesn’t reciprocate the equal allied relations that Russia truly believes that it has with Tel Aviv, and this leads to the unbalanced situation where the latest “ceasefire” pretty much becomes an instrument for preventing the SAA from defeating the pro-“Israeli” rebels in the region.
The abovementioned observation will probably shock some readers who were rock-solidly convinced that Russia supports Syria in every which way and is dedicated to protecting it from “Israel”, but the sore reality is that such preconceptions are an unfounded myth which has nothing at all to do with Moscow’s military mandate in the Arab Republic. Russia has reiterated time and again that it is only in Syria to fight terrorism, even if this does result in tangential geostrategic benefits such as those related to the “19th-Century Great Power Chessboard” paradigm or the energy ones like what the author described in his recent work titled “Russia’s Mideast Energy Diplomacy: Boom Or Bust?”. It has absolutely no desire to support President Assad and the SAA, and has repeatedly stated that it’s up to the Syrian people themselves to decide the future of their country, its leadership, and institutions. This approach is openly based on Russia’s principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states, but it’s also tacitly due to its fear of getting sucked into an Afghan-like quagmire through mission creep and being forced to foot the bill for ever-rising expenses related to this campaign.
Therefore, Russia wants to bring the War on Syria to a close as soon as possible by “encouraging” the conditions needed to compel all sides to a “political compromise”, which in the context of “ceasefire” in southern Syria disproportionately works to the SAA’s perceived disadvantage because it halts its previously successful liberation campaign near the occupied Golan Heights. For a variety of reasons, including the ones which have already been mentioned above and others, Russia lacks the political will to commit its Armed Forces to liberating “every inch of Syria” like President Assad promised his countrymen, justifying this reluctance on the grounds that Moscow will not get its military involved in a “civil war” by fighting against “rebels” when its mandate is to strictly engage in counter-terrorist operations against Daesh and other internationally recognized terrorist groups. This hints at the sensitive disagreement between the Russian and Syrian governments over what differentiates a “terrorist” from a “rebel”, as this ultimately determines which groups Russia will attack and which it will enter into negotiations with in order to achieve progress on reaching a “political solution”.
None of the existing “ceasefires” in Syria have ever included Russian-designated terrorist groups, so it’s a safe bet to assume that the present one doesn’t either, which means that Moscow apparently does not believe that the “rebels” which Damascus is fighting against in the southwest of the country are “terrorists”. Therefore, considering Russia’s stance on resolving the War on Syria as soon as it can through a “political solution” between the government and the “opposition”, it follows that it agreed with the US and “Israel” to impose a “ceasefire” in southwestern Syria in order to protect the “rebels” from the SAA .This would also have the effect of stopping the Syrian Armed Forces from crossing “Israel’s” “red lines” and provoking what Russia assumedly believes to be the dangerously irresponsible internationalization of the conflict at precisely the moment when Moscow wants to wrap everything up and initiate a “New Détente” with Washington by reaching a joint Great Power “compromise” deal to end the war. One of the primary obstacles to achieving this, as Russia evidently understands it, is President Assad and his insistently uncompromising approach to liberating “every inch of Syria” and securing the country’s unitary status.
The implication is that Russia only wants to help Syria defeat Moscow-designated terrorist groups and is against Damascus entering into hostilities with the “rebels”, whether Salafists or Kurds, and it is now actively taking steps to shape the battlefield conditions so that the SAA is disempowered and disadvantaged if it continues to attack the “opposition”. This new state of affairs, from Russia’s perspective, is expected to make Syria more “pliable” to enacting “compromises” that eventually aid in accelerating a “political solution” to the war, and if the joint Russian-American “ceasefire” model in the southwestern part of the country is “successful”, then it will probably be applied to the Kurdish-occupied northeast in the coming future as well. Given the heavy focus of the latest Geneva talks in promoting “constitutional reform” and getting the SAA to enter into coordinated anti-terrorist operations with the “rebels”, it appears as though the Russian focus is on “encouraging” all sides to join forces against Daesh and then agreeing on a “negotiated settlement” between themselves afterwards, neither of which can happen so long as Damascus views the “rebels” as terrorists and refuses to cooperate with them.
The “ceasefire” changes all of that from a strictly military perspective by freezing the battle lines between the SAA and “rebels” and pushing both of them in the direction of joining forces to combat Daesh and other Russian-designated terrorist groups. The whole point is to end the conventional anti-terrorist phase of the War on Syria as soon as possible so that the political component can occupy the center of attention, with the prospect for “concessions” from all sides being greater than ever owing to each party having recognized the frozen “ceasefire” battle lines between them as the implicit basis for forming the “decentralization” units discussed in the Russian-written “draft constitution” for Syria.
If everything goes according to the presumed plan, then Damascus would be forced to “compromise” in recognizing all anti-terrorist fighting forces as legitimate members of the “opposition” entitled to a seat at the conflict resolution table, and it would also have tacitly agreed to “decentralization” since it would be respecting the de-facto border between the SAA and each of these groups. In exchange, the Salafist and Kurdish “rebels” might not object to President Assad leading a vague “transitional government” with undetermined powers and/or the Alawites getting their own “decentralized” statelet, too. There might also be other “tit-for-tat” “concessions” that Russia could “broker” between each side as well.
Overall, the prevailing idea is that the latest “ceasefire” is a complicated act of internal and external “balancing” which sees Russia trying to delicately multi-manage its Great Power relationships in the Mideast and anti-terrorist commitments inside of Syria. Moscow’s goal is to end the conventional stage of the War on Terror as quickly as possible in order to prioritize a “political solution” to what it believes to be its “civil war” origins. The Russian approach is shaped by the calculations inherent with the “19th-Century Great Power Chessboard” paradigm, the Russian-“Israeli” strategic partnership, and Russia’s desire to make progress on advancing a “New Détente” with the US. Russia seems to believe that the forces that the SAA has been fighting against lately near al-Tanf, Tabqa, and the occupied Golan Heights aren’t terrorists but “rebels”, and that this thus means that Damascus is unnecessarily complicating Moscow’s intricate conflict resolution initiatives, hence the reason behind implementing the latest “ceasefire” which perceptively works to the military’s disadvantage for the aforementioned reasons described in this analysis.
Interestingly enough, the joint Russian-American “ceasefire” has the support of both “Israel” and Iran, two existential enemies of one another who rarely agree on anything. This could be taken to mean that Tel Aviv is satisfied that Moscow and Washington took its interests into account like Netanyahu demanded of them and that Tehran can presciently see what this agreement portends and might instead redirect more of its efforts to securing Hezbollah’s post-war presence in part of the country than helping the SAA liberate “every inch of Syria”. In the grand scope of things, Russia more or less “succeeded” in “balancing” its Syria-related interests in the pure theoretical sense, even if it did so at the perceived expense of its SAA allies in order to curry favor with other partners such as “Israel” and the “rebels”, though the fragile state of affairs is such that there’s no telling just how long any of this will last or whether the latest “concessions” were ultimately “worth it”.
Andrew Korybko is a political analyst, journalist and a regular contributor to several online journals, as well as a member of the expert council for the Institute of Strategic Studies and Predictions at the People’s Friendship University of Russia. He specializes in Russian affairs and geopolitics, specifically the US strategy in Eurasia. The views expressed in this article are author’s own. It does not reflect Global Village Space Editorial policy.