A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Emma BealsIndependent journalist and Syria specialist
Russia cannot create a just and lasting peace in Syria, but it is navigating the regional military landscape and the international political environment to create the circumstances in which a reduction in violence is possible in the future.
#Russia cannot create a just and lasting peace in #Syria.Tweet This
The current escalation in violence will lead Russia to push events on the ground until its upper hand is undeniable; then Moscow is likely to go back to the negotiating table. An attempt to end the war solely militarily would have the Russians bogged down in an Afghan-style quagmire, but reaching a negotiated truce now would also lock them into an ongoing stalemate.
As such, the forced demographic changes in the suburbs of Damascus and Homs and the current campaign to retake eastern Aleppo look set to continue. Despite incredible levels of violence, there is little appetite to stop it.
After diplomacy, the United States has no plan B. Counterterrorism is Washington’s biggest priority, closely followed by a reduction in violence or the stabilization of Syria. Lofty ambitions of rapid regime change or accountability have been kicked into the longish grass, and unilateral intervention is a nonstarter. With Russia’s veto power at the UN Security Council, the UN too is hamstrung.
The end of the war in Syria will not be just, and it’s unlikely to be peaceful. But it will be the Russians who end the war—at this stage, they are the only ones who can.
Perry CammackAssociate in Carnegie’s Middle East Program
No country can single-handedly end the Syrian civil war, including Russia. Although the humanitarian costs of Russia’s military intervention are appalling, Moscow has received a good return on its investment: the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been preserved, and Russia has gained significant regional and international leverage. So it’s not clear that Russia even wants an end to the war in Syria.
It's not clear that #Russia wants an end to the war in #Syria.Tweet This
How to change this equation? By expanding the playing field, taking advantage of Russia’s fundamental economic weakness, and dispelling the fiction that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a potential partner.
Russia is desperate to reassert its international relevance as a global superpower. So take that relevance away. Signal that until the Syrian air force is grounded, there will be no more negotiations with Moscow and that NATO will quickly begin developing its own Syrian contingencies. Consider carefully calibrated punitive strikes against the Syrian air force. Prepare for an expansion of sanctions against Russia. Make clear that further Russian cyberattacks against Western democracies will not be tolerated.
In everything Putin does—from Syria to Ukraine to cyberspace and beyond—he shows contempt for the international norms the transatlantic alliance constructed over decades. It is time to demonstrate that the West intends to respond.
Koert DebeufVisiting research fellow at the Center for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at the University of Oxford
Russia cannot end the war in Syria, but it can stop massacring civilians. Russia didn’t start the war. It was Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad who began torturing and killing people who asked for reforms back in 2011. These people started to defend themselves. This spiraled into a civil war and, based on that chaos, the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. After all their sacrifices, the Syrian people want the war to end, but there will no peace with Assad.
Russia entered the Syrian war because Assad’s forces were falling apart. If Russia stops its support, Iran will probably take over Russia’s role. Iran doesn’t want Assad to go, as this would mean the end of its influence on Syria.
Putin is chasing people out of #Syria, creating waves of refugees.Tweet This
It is doubtful whether Assad is as important to Russia as he is to Iran. Apart from an old military link between Syria and Russia, and the Mediterranean port of Tartus, Russia has no strategic assets in Syria. The reason for Russia’s intervention is different. By bombing hospitals, marketplaces, and aid convoys, Russia is targeting civilians. Russian President Vladimir Putin is chasing people out of Syria, creating more waves of refugees. He knows that these refugees are destabilizing his main enemies: the EU and NATO.
What Russia can do is stop its own war. That alone will put an end to a lot of death, destruction, and misery.
François HeisbourgSpecial adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research
Ending a war is not a war aim in and of itself as long as the conflict’s objectives can be met at an affordable cost over time. Russia has achieved its initial goals: to prevent the fall of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into unfriendly hands and to make Russia great again as a pivotal actor in the greater Middle East. These aims can be sustained for a long period of time at current human and financial levels, with fewer than 5,000 Russian soldiers in Syria and a cost of around €3 million ($3.4 million) a day, comparable with the UK-French intervention in Libya in 2011.
Russia's model in #Syria is Putin's savage war in Chechnya.Tweet This
Russia’s Clausewitzian war is not waged according to the rules of Saint Thomas Aquinas: proportionality, discriminate force, and the law of war are conspicuously absent. The model here is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s savage and successful war in Chechnya, with martyred Aleppo as a much bigger version of devastated Grozny. Putin’s war in Chechnya officially came to an end in 2009, ten years after it began, with day-to-day power being devolved by Moscow to a local warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov. As Syria is eleven times larger than Chechnya and has no border with Russia, the war in Syria is unlikely to end soon. But this prospect may not disturb Moscow.
Joost HiltermannDirector of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the International Crisis Group
Would that there were only a single war to be ended! The Syrian war has spun off a series of secondary clashes, which will rage long after the core conflict over the regime’s fate has died down. Yes, Russia might succeed—with the help of Iran and the Islamist militant group Hezbollah—in keeping the regime alive, even at the cost of burning the rebel-held part of Aleppo to the ground.
But what will Russia have won? A port and military base in a war-wrecked land; a regime deemed illegitimate by most Syrians, who may grudgingly accept its rule for fear of worse; chronic instability due to failing institutions and services; and an ongoing insurgency, which will damage Moscow’s relations with the rebels’ regional backers. And even without directly confronting Russia’s wrecking-ball policy in Syria, the United States can find all sorts of ways to exact a high toll from Moscow.
For now, #Russia is in the driver's seat in #Syria.Tweet This
Russia might prefer such an end state over the current situation: an ongoing war over Aleppo and other population centers; growing regional instability; and the increasing risk of superpower confrontation.
Neither option is a long-term gain for Russia. For now, Moscow is in the driver’s seat, and it should take the off-ramp while it still can. It must steer the conflict back to a ceasefire and negotiations, an outcome that would both serve its interests and extract a modicum of peace for Syria’s exhausted people.
Aron LundNonresident associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
With a lot of perseverance and a generous definition of victory, Russia can probably carry Syrian President Bashar al-Assad past the finish line. But I doubt that Russia, or any other party, can fully end the war. Syria will be a broken, war-torn place for years and perhaps decades to come.
#Syria will be a broken, war-torn place for years to come.Tweet This
Insofar as there is a Russian plan for how to “win” Syria, it must be to work in tandem with Iran to reinforce Assad’s grip on Syria’s populated core, while waiting for the opposing side to collapse into disunity, jihadism, and other ills. The Russians already know that the United States will not go on the offensive in Syria, simply because Washington has not found and will not find an alternative to Assad.
However, Russia’s problem is that Assad’s position may never be secure as long as their rivals are determined to keep the war going. If the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and their rebel clients keep throwing wrenches into Assad’s machinery of war, the government side may eventually fall apart, too.
In this sense, Russian President Vladimir Putin is in a bad spot: he has led Russia into a place from where an honorable exit can be granted only by his rivals.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
Technically and politically, Russia could end the war in Syria. But it is far from certain that Moscow has an interest in doing so. And if it did, it would be at a huge human cost.
Technically and politically, #Russia could end the war in #Syria.Tweet This
Western Syria—the land under regime control—is in fact a Russian protectorate where Moscow dictates the regime’s military moves, decides Syrian pilots’ missions, and coordinates tactics with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the forces of the Islamist militant group Hezbollah. More importantly, Moscow masters the political game and could theoretically enforce a solution.
The real question is whether stopping the war would be to Russia’s advantage. It is arguable that a prolonged conflict helps Moscow keep Washington on its toes, especially as the U.S. presidential campaign, in which Russian President Vladimir Putin openly favors Republican candidate Donald Trump, is nearing its final stage. In addition, ending the war would inevitably pose the question of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fate, because a political agreement—even one dominated by the current regime—would not be able to guarantee his personal security.
If, however, Russia decided to end the conflict, it would probably do so in the way it assaulted Grozny in 1999–2000: by razing anything that still stands and by mercilessly targeting fighters, civilians, humanitarian workers, hospitals, and ambulances alike—as it does on a daily basis in Aleppo now.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
Ending the war in #Syria has nothing to do with Moscow's tactics.Tweet This
Russia sees Syria as a strategic battleground on which to enhance and embed Russia’s own master plan: to achieve global dominance again and allow President Vladimir Putin to present himself as a great leader at home. Ending or inflaming the war in Syria has absolutely nothing to do with Moscow’s tactics. Should Putin need to crush Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he’ll do so in a second. But the absence of the United States from the field leaves most of the shots available to the Kremlin. U.S. President Barack Obama has decided the situation is impossible to fix (he may be right) and has secluded his administration in a mood of aloofness and frigid diplomacy.
The shouting match at the UN Security Council on September 25 between the U.S. and Russian ambassadors matched the worst episodes of the Cold War, with the violent exchange leaving other diplomats aghast. So do not expect Putin to stop bombing Aleppo—civilians or rebels. He is playing a bloody chess game, and Syria is just a pawn. In January 2017, the new U.S. president will decide whether to appease Moscow or, eventually, face the challenge of ending the conflict.
Yezid SayighSenior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center
Russia cannot end the war in Syria, because it cannot deliver Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s acceptance of a political settlement, even on the highly favorable terms contained in Russian peace proposals. These would allow Assad to remain president during a transitional period, run for office again in elections that would supposedly take place eighteen months after the end of armed conflict, and retain control over the so-called sovereign portfolios of defense, internal security, and state finances in the interim.
#Russia cannot end the war in #Syria.Tweet This
But even heavily circumscribed power sharing could unravel the complex web of informal networks on which the regime’s survival depends, imperiling it. Inducing Assad to observe the cessation of hostilities that Russia brokered with the United States in February 2016 was one thing, compelling him to submit to what he regards as an existential threat quite another.
Russia cannot ratchet up the pressure without risking the collapse of the Syrian state institutions—especially the military—that Moscow is determined to preserve. Indeed, the leverage works the other way: Assad uses the specter of state collapse to resist any dilution of his political power and to compel Russia to continue supporting his regime despite its reservations.
Only a global understanding, with the new U.S. administration, of Russia’s genuine priorities—of which Syria is not one—could change Moscow’s cost-benefit calculations and prompt a fundamental shift in its dealings with Assad. But this is a remote prospect.
Erika SolomonMiddle East correspondent for the Financial Times
As its military backer and patron on the world stage, Russia has a powerful influence over the Syrian regime and, by extension, over the fate of the Syrian war. But the impact of that influence may not be as decisive as is sometimes assumed.
#Russia has a powerful influence over the fate of the Syrian war.Tweet This
From the beginning, longtime Syria analysts have warned that President Bashar al-Assad—like any Syrian faction on the ground—would use the room his forces have to shape events. Perhaps more importantly, he could play his two patrons, Russia and Iran, off against each other in favor of his interests.
In fact, the Syrian regime has done this since the Russian military intervened on its behalf in September 2015. During the first days of Russia’s air strikes, Damascus asked Moscow to target a road that turned out to be a route designated in a deal between Iran and the rebels to move supplies and evacuate two besieged Shia towns in the north.
Regional diplomats also believe that an earlier regime campaign for the city of Aleppo in summer 2016 was conducted against Russia’s wishes.
Even now, as Russia puts the weight of its military machine behind the latest Aleppo offensive, Assad knows that Moscow sees him as its only option to keep the state intact. He knows Russia is therefore ultimately forced to back any military moves he makes to ensure the regime’s survival—and Russia ultimately loses the critical leverage it should have.
Ulrich SpeckIndependent foreign policy analyst
Russia has no incentive to end the war in Syria as long as the rebels fail to win massive Western support. The military alliance between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran, and Russia has managed to make constant progress and appears set to regain control over the whole of Syria.
Part of the challenge for Russia is to keep Western outrage at its actions contained, as a public outcry in the West might force unwilling Western governments into more support for rebels in Syria.
A fake diplomatic process has helped cover #Russia's actions in Syria.Tweet This
For one year, a fake diplomatic process has helped cover Russia’s actions in Syria, enabling Moscow to present itself just as a backer of the Assad regime, not as a participant in a dirty war. The West has played along as this has helped Western capitals hide their unwillingness to take serious steps to end the war by changing the balance of forces in Syria.
The bloodier the war becomes, the more difficult it is for both sides to continue to keep up this charade. But U.S. President Barack Obama appears determined to stay out of Syria no matter what the costs are.
Dmitri TreninDirector of the Carnegie Moscow Center
Russia cannot stop the war in Syria alone. It can contribute to a peaceful outcome if the main warring parties in Syria—Damascus and the moderate opposition, as well as their supporters, Iran on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar on the other—cooperate. What is crucial, however, is the cooperation of the United States. Since the start of the Russian military intervention in Syria in 2015, Moscow and Washington twice came close to stopping hostilities and leading the political process. On both occasions, they failed.
#Russia cannot stop the war in #Syria alone.Tweet This
Russia’s overriding goal is Syria has always been winning U.S. recognition of its recovered global role as a major power. Co-steering the diplomatic process with the U.S. Department of State and fighting as an equal partner alongside the Pentagon against the self-proclaimed Islamic State have been two sides of Moscow’s strategy toward that goal. Neither Russia’s goal nor its strategy, however, was readily acceptable in Washington, particularly in the Department of Defense, whose head publicly ranked Russia as the number one security challenge to the United States, way above terrorism—that is, the Islamic State—which was number five.
After the September 17 attack by U.S. warplanes at Deir al-Zour and renewed fighting in the city of Aleppo, U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria is finished for the remainder of the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. War has won, for now.