The US Should Make Clear That its Posture Will Change Only if Russian Deeds Match their Words
by Dennis Ross*
The war in Syria continues to be a humanitarian catastrophe. The suffering continues, the mass displacement of the population, the terrible destruction of many of the cities, and the almost unimaginable conditions under which Syrians surviving in besieged areas are forced to live, constitute a blight on the international conscience. As horrible as Assad’s use of chemical weapons has been, these attacks represent but a small fraction of the casualties that the regime has inflicted on its civilian population with aerial attacks and barrel bombs. Indeed, Assad and the Russians have made hospitals and clinics regular targets—practicing a scorched earth policy designed to depopulate areas and foster hopelessness among those opposing the Assad clique.
Given the extraordinary human toll of the war, one should welcome anything that promises to stop the relentless onslaught against the civilian areas. Notwithstanding Russia’s role in devastating attacks on populated areas, it now has generated a memorandum signed along with Turkey and Iran to create four “de-escalation zones” in Syria. The memorandum seeks to produce a pause in the fighting, to include government air-strikes, and to provide for the free passage of humanitarian assistance in and around four designated areas: the northern province of Idlib, the central area around Homs, eastern Ghouta a Damascus suburb, and southern Syria near the Jordanian border. With the memorandum, the Russians seem to be trying to curtail the conflict, and a long last, to limit the human toll of the conflict.
Is there a reason to believe that something is different this time? After all, the Russians signed up to the “Vienna Principles” in November of 2015 and these were embodied in UN Security Resolution 2254 a month later—and these called for a cessation of hostilities, an end to the siege of civilian areas, the uninhibited and free access for humanitarian assistance and an 18 month political transition process. Assad violated these principles nearly from the outset, never lifting the sieges and consistently removing medical supplies from humanitarian convoys. And, of course, rejecting anything that would look like a transition from the regime—and the Russians never made any effort to impose on him or make him pay a price for his violations.
For sure, many in the opposition are dubious that anything will change now. One reason for their skepticism is the loophole that is built into the memorandum: fighting against, including aerial bombardment, of Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), the new incarnation of the al Nusra front and al Qaeda in Syria, is not subject to the limitations on attacks. The problem is that many of the opposition groups particularly in the Idlib province, Homs, and Ghouta are co-located with elements of HTS—in no small part because these elements proved to be effective fighters. The memorandum calls on the opposition groups to fight these al Qaeda forces, and, thus, leaves Assad with an ability to claim he is only bombing the terrorists—a label he conveniently applies to all opposition forces and groups. In this connection, Putin said aircraft won’t operate over the designated zones, “provided that these zones show no sign of military activity.”
Again, this raises the question of whether the Russians will impose on Assad when he violates the memorandum—or will they rationalize his actions and defend him as they have consistently done in the past and in response to the regime’s recent use of chemical weapons. Still, there are a few reasons to believe that the Russians may adopt a different course this time. First, and foremost, Putin has achieved his basic objectives in Syria: secured the Assad regime, acquired an air base (something the Soviets never had) and will have expanded naval facilities at Tartus, demonstrating that the Russians are the lead arbiter of any possible outcome in Syria, and for those in the region who worry about their security, the message has been received that Russia cannot be ignored. With his main objectives achieved, Putin does not need to face an ongoing insurgency that increases the costs to Russia. Assad may say he wants to take back every inch, but he lacks the manpower even now to hold territory that is retaken without the Shia militias, and Russia is not committed to carrying on the fight throughout the country. In fact, for Putin, a de facto partition of the country—with the western spine of Syria from Aleppo in the north to Damascus in the south under the regime’s control—meets Russia’s needs. It preserves Russia’s new military access and presence and the effectiveness of their intervention.
Putin surely wants to appear to have won in Syria without raising the costs of being there. He also knows that Russia (and Iran for that matter) don’t have the resources or the inclination to provide for Syria’s huge reconstruction needs which will total in the hundreds of billions of dollars. And, if all that were not enough, he understands that if he can’t give the US a reason to accept this new posture, it will be hard to get some of the Gulf states to go along as they continue to retain the means to influence many of the opposition or rebel militias. No wonder Putin also observed this week that the US needed to play a role in any settlement in Syria.
There may, of course, be one more reason for Putin to act differently in Syria now. Apart from feeling he has won and it is time to minimize the costs, he does have an agenda with the US. He has not given up on President Trump who continues to avoid personal attacks on the Russian leader. Putin probably still believes that he may yet be able to forge understandings with the American president on lifting sanctions on Russia—and showing he is creating what amounts to safe zones in Syria, a position President Trump has long favored—may certainly set the stage for a productive meeting with the president when they are likely to meet in July.
All this suggests that the US has leverage. The Trump administration’s response to the announcement of the agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran—in which all pledge to be guarantors of the provision of the memorandum—was cautious in supporting the idea of the de-escalation zones but concerned about the role that the Iranians would play. The administration should make clear it will support the memorandum and encourage its partners in the region to do so as well, but only if we see actual implementation without exception. We must see zero tolerance for Assad’s violations whether those involve bombing or blocking humanitarian assistance. We must not see Russia defending Assad’s attacks against non-HTS groups and his almost certain exploitation of the loophole on who, what, and where aerial attacks can still take place.
If the past is prologue, there is good reason to doubt that the new memorandum signed by Russia, Turkey and Iran will put the Syrian conflict on a different pathway that reduces the horrific costs of this war. The Trump administration should make clear the American posture will change only when it is clear that Russian deeds this time actually match their words.
*American Middle East envoy Dennis Ross has served in the Administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, and is counselor and Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.