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Factors behind Failure of US-Russia Agreement on Syria Ceasefire

Monday, October 10, 2016

Afifeh Abedi
Researcher of Eurasia Studies at The Center for Strategic Research (CSR), Tehran

All understandings between Russia and the United States over the situation in Syria have failed and all communications between Russian and American armies have come to an abrupt halt. At present, Washington accuses Russia of breaching the ceasefire, while Moscow accuses Washington of having secret plans for the Arab country. The United States is threatening to go for Plan B (military operation) in Syria, while Russia is studying preemptive options to prevent this. All remarks made by American and Russian officials point in the direction of the beginning of a new chapter in the Syrian crisis in which it seems diplomacy has reached its end. A host of questions can be posed in this regard, which include: Does the United States have a military plan for Syria and what is its goal? What reaction Russia will show if the United States goes for Plan B in Syria? What is the reason behind the current escalation of tensions? Is there any way for Washington and Russia to get back to the negotiating table?

However, before answering these questions, two very important points must be taken into consideration:

1.      When the United States and Russia attended negotiations on Syria, many analysts said that there were no serious differences between the United States and Russia, except with regard to the fate of the Syrian President Bashar Assad. They argued that Russia can show resilience on the fate of Assad for its part. However, a very important point was ignored in all those arguments. That point was the basic reason, which has prompted Russia to show military presence in Syria and turn into one of the main negotiating parties on the Arab country, and that what conditions would Moscow face if it accepted to give up its allies?

Russia has constantly noted that its presence in Syria is in line with the will and official request of the Syrian government and conforms to norms of international law. Therefore, negotiations over the fate of the Syrian government and accepting the conditions set by the opposite side in this regard would face not only Damascus, but also the Russian side with a major challenge. On the other hand, these negotiations created limitations on the ground for the allies of Russia, including Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which were basically guarantors of Russia's power in Syria. Although there is no difference between Russia and the United States about the need to guarantee security of Israel, the factor, which increases the significance of Russia's military presence in Syria and its air strikes in this country, is the boost it gives to Syria’s allied forces to make advances on the ground. In other words, restricting the power of Russia's allies on the ground at a time that the United States is not willing to limit the list of Syria’s opposition forces and differentiate between them and extremist groups, has been in fact used by Washington as a means of disarming Russia in Syria. On the whole, basic differences between the United States and Russia at the negotiating table were much more numerous and important than the issue of Assad’s fate.

2.      President Barack Obama’s liberal administration has created many rifts within domestic power structure in the United States. One of those rifts has emerged between the White House and the US Department of Defense, which is headquartered in the Pentagon. Obama, who came to office in 2008 on promises to end the United States’ military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, has had to make many changes in the leadership of the Pentagon during the past eight years. However, differences between the two sides have not ebbed after appointment of Ashton Carter as the fourth secretary of defense in Obama’s administration and, on the contrary, have intensified over the issue of Syria. A verbal argument between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Ashton Carter during a video conference after negotiations in Geneva showed that endorsement of the Syria ceasefire deal between Washington and Moscow by the White House was not shared on the side of the Pentagon. The subsequent attack by the US Air Force on the Syrian army base in the city of Dayr al-Zawr was the American military’s coup de grace to that agreement. Of course, it must be noted that the main goal pursued by the White House through reaching a ceasefire agreement with Russia in Syria was not actually finding a political solution to the Syria crisis, but was aimed at buying time for the management of this crisis in the last remaining months of Obama’s term in office. Obama was planning to hand down the case of Syria to the next administration under relatively better conditions. The American military officials, however, are pessimistic in this regard as they believe that time is being lost in favor of Russia and the government in Syria, especially due to recent advances they have made in the area of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. It seems that the Pentagon has formed a secret war cabinet and this is why the White House issued a warning quite recently about the possibility of opting for the Plan B in Syria in parallel to developments on the ground in the Arab country.

In fact, the collective impact of these factors has led to the current situation in Syria. Having lost hope in the success of its agreement with the United States, Russia has decided to shore up its military presence in Syria and has been playing a more serious role in the operation to purge the Syrian city of Aleppo of terrorists. Despite these conditions, Russian experts still express hope that these measures may finally make the United States return to the negotiating table. The main issue, however, is that not only traditionally but also in an unprecedented manner, the power of the US president greatly reduces in the last months of his term in the White House and systemic warmongers increase their grip on the situation. In the meantime, one may claim that Russia has been left with no other choice, but to take bolder steps in Syria.

More By Afifeh Abedi:

*Russia’s Strategy in Aleppo: Military or Political?: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Russia-s-Strategy-in-Aleppo-Military-or-Political-.htm

*Messages of Trilateral Meeting among Defense Ministers of Iran, Russia and Syria: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Messages-of-Trilateral-Meeting-among-Defense-Ministers-of-Iran-Russia-and-Syria.htm

*Iran, Russia, Arabs Triangle: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Iran-Russia-Arabs-Triangle.htm

*Photo Credit: Fort Russ

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