Syria’s cease-fire deal was born in Munich, in the early hours of Friday morning — and pronounced dead in the same town within a day, a development that exposed just how little influence the U.S. now has over the conflict.
U.K. Foreign Minister Philip Hammond probably had the smartest take on the deal, when he divided it into two parts during the annual Munich Security Conference, which began hours after the deal was signed. One part, to deliver humanitarian aid to besieged civilians, will probably happen to some extent and would surely be a worthwhile achievement. The other, a potential truce, is entirely dependent on what Russia wants, Hammond said.
That’s a stunning admission in itself: Since when did Russia, rather than the U.S., play the deciding role in any part of the Middle East? Since now. The terms of the truce show the impotence of the U.S. in Syria.
In the short term, at least, there should be no mystery about what Russia wants, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, who heads Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy: Aleppo.
“The deal’s dead, but it will live after two or three tries,” Lukyanov said. He put this down to the nature of conflicts, drawing a parallel with Bosnia and in particular Ukraine, where it took a series of attempts at a truce, from September 2014 to February 2015, to make one more or less stick.
There is, of course, a more cynical way to look at Ukraine’s abortive cease-fires, which is that Russia used them to avoid harsher sanctions, while still achieving its minimal military goals. In Syria, those minimal goals involve President Bashar al-Assad recapturing Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war.
“Of course, Russia will not stop supporting Assad until Aleppo is taken, or liberated — however, you choose to describe it,” Lukyanov told me, shortly after U.S. Senator John McCain had excoriated the deal as “immoral,” for just that reason. “This is an absolutely crucial issue, both for Syria’s future stability, and for Russia to demonstrate that the whole operation made sense. You need some kind of spectacular event of the scale of retaking Aleppo to do that.”
This is why the agreement Lavrov signed up to makes no mention of stopping airstrikes, and on Sunday the Russian bombing campaign continued unabated. It’s also why the U.S. might have paid lip service to close military cooperation in the text of the deal, but will not follow through with it — something Lavrov was quick to complain about, warning that without such close cooperation the deal can’t work. The U.S., after all, will continue its own air campaign against Islamic State regardless of any cease-fire, from which it and the al-Qaida franchise al-Nusra are excluded. So why not create a joint operations room?
As the Harvard professor and former U.S. undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns told me, the U.S. believes Russia is dropping indiscriminate gravity and cluster bombs on civilian-populated areas of Aleppo, on the pretext of battling terrorists. “You can absolutely understand why Secretary of State [John] Kerry is unwilling to align the U.S. with what Russia is doing in Syria,” he said.
And that’s what close military cooperation in selecting targets, which the Russians would insist include Aleppo, would mean — laundering Russia’s “anti-terrorist” campaign, civilian casualties, refugees and all.
If Russia won’t enable any cease-fire until Aleppo is taken, that leaves the question of what happens after the city falls, or at least is surrounded. Lukyanov is well connected, but he said he didn’t know. He is, however, worried. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s warnings this weekend about sliding into a new Cold War suggest that Putin may be, too.
“At a certain point, a full Turkish intervention is inevitable,” said Lukyanov, referring to the extreme concern Turkey would have about tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of refugees heading for Turkey, while Kurdish and Syrian government forces take control of the whole border, cutting off Turkish access and creating a Kurdish proto-state. Indeed, if recent talk from Turkey and Saudi Arabia about sending in ground troops hasn’t spooked both superpowers, it should have.
“That would mean a completely different conflict, with a much larger force fighting on the side of the opposition and the risk of a direct Russian-Turkish conflict,” said Lukyanov. Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member protected by its collective defense clause, has already shot down a Russian plane, so nothing can be ruled out. The potential for escalation to a Russia-NATO conflict would be real.
Putin, however, doesn’t have to test Turkey’s limits once Aleppo’s future is more or less settled. He can back a cease-fire and turn his air power and Assad’s ground troops on Islamic State in their headquarters, Raqqa. That would not only be a second spectacular event with which to declare victory, but would also split the West and the region over his intervention in Syria. In addition, it would leave Assad — rather than any U.S. or Turkish-backed rebels — in control of territory abandoned by Islamic State. Already there are indications Assad is preparing such an assault.
Kerry’s problem, and that of the U.S. and its allies, is that by now Putin holds virtually all the cards. Russia may not be the dominant player in the Middle East, but when it comes to Syria, it certainly is.