US - Russia Cooperation in Syria: Goals and Motivations

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

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

A plan offered by Russia to resolve the crisis in Syria has gotten close to the American perspective on this issue in its key aspects and now, Moscow and Washington support each other’s proposals for the promotion of the peace process in Syria. Since the two countries have been sharing their viewpoints in this regard, it seems that Moscow and Washington have decided to resolve the Syria crisis on the basis of a bilateral agreement. This issue, however, has cast doubts on the future outlook of Syria peace talks and any possible agreements. Restriction of negotiations among involved parties in Syria to cooperation between Russia and the United States has raised many questions about the two sides’ motivations and goals as well as the outlook of the Syria crisis. These questions are important to all parties involved in Syria crisis, including regional sides, especially Iran.

Why bilateral negotiations?

Since the beginning and also throughout the crisis in Syria, three groups of domestic, regional and international actors have been playing role in this crisis. Therefore, one can only have a definitive hope in the resolution of this crisis when an agreement is reached at all three levels. The experience of past negotiations known as Geneva 1, Geneva 2, Vienna 1 and Vienna 2, however, has shown that as long as international actors have not reached a decisive agreement on this issue, it is not possible for an agreement to be clinched by domestic and regional actors. So, it seems that due to this reason and because of the relatively successful experience of the joint statement issued by Washington and Russia on October 30, cooperation in the adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, and subsequent establishment of cease-fire in Syria, Russia and the United States are now more willing to resolve the Syria crisis through bilateral cooperation. Perhaps, they have reached the conclusion that they can convince their respective allies about their bilateral agreement.

It seems that in the roadmap that the United States and Russia have drawn for Syria, the most important bone of contention, which is the fate of the country’s President Bashar Assad, has been set aside for the present time. The current framework for cooperation between Russia and the United States is agreement on the articles of the new Syrian constitution, because after reaching an agreement on the general outlines of the constitution, agreement on the political structure as well as parliamentary and presidential elections would be simpler. Russian and American diplomats have emphasized that the two countries have already set up special teams for consultation and exchange of ideas in this regard, especially for the formulation of the initial draft of the new Syrian constitution.

Russia’s motivations and goals

When it comes to regional and international measures, Russia always considers its motivations and goals at a number of various levels. The domestic level is related to domestic affairs of Russia, while the regional level depends on the subject and the international level is basically about rivalry with the United States. In order to know why Russians are willing to cooperate with the United States on the issue of Syria, a few aspects of this issue should be taken into consideration, including: 1. Why Russia decided to be militarily present in Syria; 2. Under what conditions Moscow decided to withdraw part of its forces from Syria, and 3. What have been the costs and benefits so far paid and gained by Russia?

An answer to these questions would show that bringing the United States to the negotiating table could be considered as a political win for Russia. In the first place, these negotiations bolster the political process in Syria, which had been started following the beginning of Russia’s air strikes in the Arab country, and this is exactly what Russia needs under the present circumstances. In the second place, this issue may help the United States and Russia settle their disputes in other areas, especially in Ukraine, and help remove Western sanctions that have been imposed against Moscow. Russian analysts have been warning about the domestic economic consequences of the Syrian war for Russia, and this issue will become more important to Kremlin as the country’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for September 2016, draw close.

Motivations and goals of the United States

Being aware of Moscow’s goals and motivations and the fact that Kremlin is always open to a deal, the American side invited Russia to bilateral negotiations. Let’s not forget that despite all sharp remarks made by American officials against Russia due to Moscow’s military presence in Syria, they finally got along with that and moved to cooperate with Russia. They did this because as the US President Barack Obama is going through his last year in office, his administration is racing against time to put an end to the crisis in Syria. Logically speaking, since Obama firmly believes that the United States must not get involved in another war in the Middle East, this could be the sole possible opportunity to prevent involvement in such a war from happening under the new US president. So, one can claim that as is the case with Russia, for the democrat government of the United States to guarantee the beginning of the political process in Syria, to guarantee that a new elected government will come to office, and establishing a military base in Syria would be a more desirable and less costly goal than stubbornly insisting on rapid removal of Bashar Assad from power.

Iran's approach

Iran knows that Russia is willing to cooperate with the United States and the agreement about cooperation on the new Syrian constitution should be considered as another sign of Moscow’s effort to put a rapid end to the crisis in Syria. Therefore, while continuing its support for Damascus, Iran is waiting for the result of the bilateral talks between the United States and Russia on Syria. From the viewpoint of Iran, the officials in Kremlin should know that the situation in the field and the real balance of powers on the ground in Syria is the only thing that has turned Russia into one of the main parties to negotiations on Syria and Russia would lose its footing in the face of the United States in the absence of this backing. Therefore, Russians have no choice, but to factor in the considerations of their allies in Syria as well.

Key WordsUS, Russia, Cooperation, Syria, Goals, Motivations, Bilateral Negotiations, United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2254, Cease-Fire, Syrian Constitution, Military Presence, Bashar Assad, Iran's Approach, Abedi

*Photo Credit: Sputnik News

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