Can a Russian-Designed Peace Hold?
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The first major ceasefire in the five-year old war in Syria was in its third day on Monday morning. The U.S.-Russian deal for a cessation of hostilities that was announced early last week and came into effect on Saturday has not stopped the violence entirely, but major combating sides appeared to be holding off.
News roundup shows on state-run television, usually important indicators of the Kremlin’s position, hailed the ceasefire as a successful Russian project. In countless reports on all major networks, Russian warplanes were seen sitting quietly on the tarmac of the Hmeymim air base in Syria's coastal province of Latakia. Only a coordination center set up to negotiate with fighting groups has been shown to be busy working. The Russian Defense Ministry said 74 opposition units, including more than 6,100 fighters, have agreed to adhere to the truce.
Anchors have softened their normally venomous tone towards the U.S. and portrayed America as an equal partner in brokering the Syria deal. Even Dmitry Kiselev, presenter of Vesti Nedeli, a weekly news round-up show (of “radioactive ash” fame) sounded conciliatory. “The deal only became possible because of Russia and the United States, the two great powers who took up responsibility for preventing a big war,” Kiselev said yesterday.
The truce was a product of Russia’s relentless diplomatic offensive, Kiselev said, who retraced the steps leading to it, meeting by meeting: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shuttling from one Middle Eastern capital to another; Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani; and, finally, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama sealing the deal over the phone. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been sidelined and marginalized by the deal, Kiselev and other presenters pointed out triumphantly.
On Sunday, the main opposition grouping, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, confirmed that the ceasefire was holding, but lodged a formal complaint to the UN about a number of breaches. “We have violations here and there, but in general it is a lot better than before,” said Salem al-Meslet, a representative of the High Negotiations Committee. Russia has insisted that it reserves the right to attack the so-called Islamic State and al-Nusra Front forces, as these two groups are outside the framework of the ceasefire.
The ceasefire agreement is a major test for all parties involved. But primarily it is a test of Russia’s and the U.S.’ ability to rein in the forces they purport to control.
All backers of the ceasefire still hold major grudges against each other. The West and Russia still deeply distrust each other’s motives. All of the fighting groups on the ground still hate each other. The regime of the President Bashar al-Assad is still unacceptable to most Sunni powers and the West. Diplomats and politicians in Moscow do understand that given the limited resources that Russia commands in Syria, and the need to accommodate both the Syrian Sunni majority and the Kurds, a compromise over Assad must be found eventually.
The ceasefire agreement is a major test for all parties involved. But primarily it is a test of Russia’s and the U.S.’ ability to rein in the forces they purport to control. The design of the deal is very Russian in the sense that it reflects a belief held by many in the Kremlin that great powers hold sway over smaller countries; or at least should be able to take the command post when it comes to war and peace.
For the Kremlin, the ability to be a strong patron state is a crucial attribute of a high functioning world power. This is the kind of status that the Kremlin has been trying to restore all along. This is why the deal is highlighted and celebrated by state-run television: Russia has finally been able to take part in a “mini-Yalta.”
One of the reasons for the Kremlin’s anger with Turkey is that—from the Russian perspective—Erdogan proved much more dependent on the U.S. than the Kremlin had thought. Turkey would not down a Russian plane if it were not told to do so by its superiors in Washington and NATO. The Kremlin is now treating Turkey as a U.S. client state for whose behavior (including continued operations against the Kurds that might interfere with the peace process) Washington is ultimately responsible.
There is an important difference in emphasis put on the truce by Moscow and in Washington. Syria means a lot for Moscow; it is a prime-time, number one news item. In the U.S., everyone is watching the Oscars and is following the electoral battles.
There is also mistrust: many in the West see Russia’s operation in Syria as just another of “Putin’s gambits.” Russia is often seen to be in the business of staging quasi-ceasefires, or creating frozen conflicts and economic black holes, just like in Georgia or Ukraine. But Moscow sees it in a very different light. The important difference between Ukraine and Syria, the Kremlin officials always make sure to point out, is the fact that in Ukraine Russia has been supporting separatists, but in Syria it is supporting a sitting government, however little is left of the country this government once controlled.
Those in the U.S. military and in political circles that are not convinced Russia is playing a straightforward game in Syria are reported to be pushing for ways to increase pressure on Moscow, including expanding covert military assistance for anti-Assad rebel groups. Moscow, at the same time, sees the U.S.-Russian deal for a cessation of hostilities in Syria as a chance to demonstrate that Russia is not just a force to be reckoned with, but also a force to rely on. Hopefully, Moscow’s enthusiasm for the deal means that the Russian leaders want to not just take credit for it, but also responsibility.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.
About the Author
Editor-at-Large, Vedomosti Daily
Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.Read More
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American expertise and knowledge of Russia, Ukraine, and the region. Through its residential fellowship programs, public lectures, workshops, and publications, the Institute strives to attract, publicize, and integrate new research into the policy community. Read more