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For the U.S. and Russia, True Progress in Syria Is Still a Distant Prospect

5 MINS READJul 17, 2017 | 14:02 GMT
An end to the civil war remains a distant prospect, given the fragility of the cease-fire, Russia's limited influence over Iran and Syria, and disparate Russian and U.S. goals.
(LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)

The cease-fire agreement between Washington and Moscow may be a milestone, but even in the best-case scenario it won't move the conflict much closer to a resolution.

Forecast Highlights
  • The cease-fire agreement in Syria between the United States and Russia marks a new level of cooperation for the two countries.
  • Washington hopes to use the deal as a springboard for negotiations with Moscow to settle the Syrian conflict.
  • But an end to the civil war remains a distant prospect, given the fragility of the cease-fire, Russia's limited influence over Iran and Syria, and disparate Russian and U.S. goals.

The United States and Russia have reached a cease-fire agreement in Syria, but the ramifications of the deal will almost certainly be less drastic than many would like. The July 7 accord covers the southwestern Syrian provinces of Quneitra, Daraa and Sweida, and marks a new level of cooperation between the United States and Russia in Syria. Prior to their bargain, coordination had been limited to deconfliction mechanisms aimed at preventing an accidental skirmish between the U.S.-led coalition and Russian-backed forces in the country.

The White House has made it clear that it hopes to use the agreement as a way to breathe new life into negotiations with the Kremlin on settling the ongoing conflict. But the end of the civil war remains a distinctly distant prospect, especially since the new cease-fire deal already has been violated several times in the past week.

Stability, or Else

The United States' newfound willingness to work with Russia in Syria didn't come out of nowhere. As the battle — or at least, the conventional battle — against the Islamic State reaches its final phases in Iraq and Syria, Washington can no longer escape the fact that it needs to plan for the aftermath. Based on the Islamic State's emergence in Iraq after the United States left, the extremist group will likely remain a persistent insurgent force for years to come, even after its conventional battlefield defeat. Absent a comprehensive and successful effort to at least stabilize Syria, the Islamic State and other extremist groups will continue benefiting from the security vacuum and chaos in the country. Indeed, it could easily rebuild and re-emerge as a powerful force: In Syria, the Islamic State already has been able to expand its power in less critical areas of the country while its enemies were distracted with one another.

It's abundantly clear that there needs to be a comprehensive stabilization effort in Syria, but whether Washington and Moscow can work together toward that goal is not as evident. A number of past cease-fire agreements spearheaded by the United States and Russia have collapsed amid bitter recriminations and violations. And beyond the implementation of the cease-fire, there is little evidence suggesting that Russia is truly interested in the same goals in Syria as the United States. Washington sees an eventual move away from Syrian President Bashar al Assad's government and toward a less divisive transitional government as a necessary step to repair damaged relations between loyalist factions and the opposition. But Moscow seems less willing to go out of its way in pushing for the dissolution of an allied government in Damascus. Moreover, as U.S. President Donald Trump emphasized in his recent address in Poland, the United States is aiming for a political solution in Syria that limits Iran's influence and reach. Considering Moscow has worked closely with Tehran on a number of fronts in Syria, it is unlikely Russia would share that same objective.

Russia's sway over the Syrian and Iranian governments is hardly exhaustive, and both countries would likely do little more than pay lip service to any Russian initiatives they deem to be against their core interests.

Easier Said Than Done

Even if Moscow held the same goals as the United States, it is not at all clear that it could actually deliver on them. There is no doubt that Russia has significant influence over the Syrian government and its Iranian patron. This influence has grown in recent years as Russia has backed loyalist forces on the battlefield and the Syrian government in the United Nations. However, Russia's sway over the Syrian and Iranian governments is hardly exhaustive, and both countries would likely do little more than pay lip service to any Russian initiatives they deem to be against their core interests. Loyalist forces have already violated numerous Russian-backed cease-fire plans, including the four de-escalation zones set up in the January negotiations among Russia, Turkey and Iran known as the Astana Process. Loyalist troops completely ignored two of the de-escalation zones as they maintained offensive operations against rebel units in those areas.

In fact, one of these failed de-escalation zones was eventually divorced from the Astana Process and taken up in the latest U.S.-Russian agreement, which also involves two other participants: Israel and Jordan. Israel is alarmed by Iran's rising influence in Damascus, heightened support for Hezbollah and growing focus on the Golan Heights. It is therefore even more determined than the United States to curb Iran's reach in Syria. But Israel remains critical of what it perceives to be a flawed cease-fire agreement between the United States and Russia. Israel is fully aware of Iran's ambitions in the region and is not convinced that the cease-fire will last. And with the United States, Jordan and Israel unwilling or unable to station monitoring forces on the ground in Syria at this time, it will be difficult to enforce the cease-fire or hold the rebels and loyalist forces accountable for any violations.

In the best-case scenario, even if local cease-fire efforts were to succeed, the greater systemic challenge of translating them into a strategic political agreement would remain. The Iranian and Syrian governments are nowhere near ready to make concessions to set up the inclusive transitional government needed to stabilize the country. Given their battlefield edge and momentum, Tehran and Damascus will instead continue with a maximalist position that seeks to increase their territorial control. Thus the alternative to the current pace of the Syrian civil war is unlikely to mark much improvement. At best, the country will be increasingly divided and partitioned into separate zones under different armed factions — hardly the stable environment that would preclude the re-emergence of the Islamic State or other violent extremist groups.

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