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How Putin’s Leverage Shaped the Syrian Ceasefire

On Syria, Russia’s President Putin is having his way not just vis-à-vis Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but also the United States.

Credit: Frederic Legrand - COMEO and Slavko Sereda/ Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Putin is having his way not just vis-à-vis Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but also the United States.
  • Putin has leverage over the US policy in Syria, while Kerry has no similar leverage over Russian policy.
  • Kerry asked Obama to carry out attacks on Assad forces, so he could have “leverage” in negotiations with Russia.
  • Russia’s on-the-ground success gave Putin an advantage in negotiations with US over a Syrian ceasefire.
  • US as part of the ceasefire deal pledged to “enforce the cessation of the flow of weapons” into Syria.
  • Russia has ruled out any requirement for Assad to resign but Iran fears that assurance is not ironclad.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S Secretary of State John Kerry have clearly been the primary drivers of their respective governments’ policies toward Syria.

Their negotiations have already led to a Syrian ceasefire few ever expected to materialize and hold. In addition, Syrian negotiations on a political settlement now seem possible.

Washington and Moscow had to cooperate in order to get that ceasefire, along with the jump-starting of intra-Syrian negotiations. Those negotiations are now scheduled to begin next month, according to UN special envoy Steffan de Mistura.

However, the diplomatic maneuvering involved in getting there did not reflect equal influence on each other’s policies.

Putin’s Russia has now demonstrated that it has effective leverage over the policy of the United States in Syria, whereas Kerry has no similar leverage over Russian policy.

What a difference a year makes

Kerry had appeared to be the primary driver of a political settlement last year. His initiative was propelled by a strategy based on exploiting the military success of the Nusra Front-led opposition forces, armed by the United States and its allies, in northwestern Syria.

Kerry viewed that success as a way to put pressure on both the Assad regime and its Russian ally. His goal? That they would agree for Assad to step down.

But that strategy turned out to be an overreach. Putin surprised the outside world by intervening in Syria with enough airpower to put the jihadists and their “moderate” allies on the defensive.

We now know that Kerry, still pursuing that strategy, asked U.S. President Barack Obama to carry out direct attacks on Assad’s forces, so he could have some “leverage” in the negotiations with the Russians over a ceasefire and settlement.

But Obama refused to do so. Russia’s on-the-ground success, especially in January and February of this year, conferred on Putin an even more clear-cut advantage in the negotiations with the United States over a Syrian ceasefire.

Even though the U.S. side was effectively outmaneuvered, the U.S.-Russian agreement on a ceasefire has proven to be far more effective than anyone had expected.

It is now clear why Putin was able to convert his new-found leverage into the one U.S. diplomatic concession that is necessary to any possibility of ending the war.

The agreement between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Kerry was more far-reaching than what has been made public.

Why Putin halted the Russian campaign

According to a report last week by Elijah J. Magnier, who writes on regional politics and diplomacy for Al Rai, Kuwait’s leading daily newspaper, “high officials present in Syria” – which his report makes clear were Iranian – said that the United States had pledged as part of the ceasefire deal to “enforce on its regional Middle Eastern allies the cessation of the flow of weapons” into Syria.

In response to an e-mail query from this writer, Magnier said he had learned from his sources that no weapons have crossed the border into Syria from either Turkey or Jordan since the ceasefire went into effect.

This crucial element of the U.S.-Russian understanding, about which the Obama administration has understandably maintained a discrete silence, left the leadership of Nusra Front and its allies with little choice but to go along with the ceasefire for an indeterminate period.

The net result is that the entire armed opposition has thus apparently been shut down in Syria on the insistence of the United States.

Why? Because it was a requirement for the Russians to halt the offensive against them.

Putin calls the shots

It was this far-reaching U.S. concession that explains why Putin surprised the entire world by announcing on March 14 that he was withdrawing the bulk of the Russian aircraft participating in the offensive.

Contrary to the speculation of many pundits about his motive in doing so, Putin was actually enhancing his leverage over both the military situation and the political negotiations still to come.

Magnier’s sources told him that when Putin had informed Iran of his intention to withdraw the planes, he had emphasized that they could be returned to Syria within 24 hours if necessary.

Magnier’s Iranian sources also made it clear that Iran was unhappy about the timing of Putin’s decisions on the ceasefire. They believed that it came at least a month too soon, just as Iranian forces were in a position to gain significantly more territory.

But Putin’s agreement to the ceasefire and partial withdrawal on condition that outside patrons would not move to resupply their clients served the larger Russian strategy of checkmating the aim of Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The Russian President is adamantly opposed to these two Sunni nations’ goal of bringing down the Assad regime – an aim in which the United States had become deeply involved, even as it insisted it wanted to preserve the structure of the Syrian state security apparatus.

In one deft move, Putin has thus proved capable of having his way not just vis-à-vis Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but also the United States..

By shifting the conflict to the negotiating table, Putin’s moves have also added to Russian leverage on the Assad regime. The Russians can be expected to be active in suggesting ways to craft a Syrian agreement on new elections and constitutional reform.

The Russians have also ruled out any requirement for Assad to resign, but the Iranians are afraid that assurance is not ironclad.

Iranian officials strongly hinted privately in Vienna that they believed the Russians made a deal with the United States on a key sanctions relief issue at Iran’s expense in the final stage of the nuclear negotiations. They fear something similar may happen on Syria.

Assad’s future

Putin will have a range of options for compromise that wouldn’t require Assad’s withdrawal from the regime. In a new constitution, for example, Assad could assume the role of chief of state with more ceremonial functions and an “advisory” role, while policymaking powers are assumed by a prime minister.

Such a compromise could be seen as preserving the legitimacy and stability of the present regime, even though Kerry could claim that the opposition’s main interest had been achieved.

Editor’s Note: Adapted from Middle East Eye

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About Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian who specializes in U.S. national security policy.

  • the globalizer

    Even though our relations with the Russians have been strained in the past, isn’t it about time that we in the U.S. realized that we are not the only force in an increasingly multilateral world. In looking back at history, we see that the last 70 years has been a bit of an anomaly where the U.S. has assumed the role of ‘world policeman’. As the British can testify, this role eventually proves prohibitively expensive. To deny the existence of ‘spheres of influence’ is to turn one’s back on geography. The Russians have more to lose in Syria than we Americans, so perhaps it is better to accept their intervention than battle against it.
    That being said, the problem now is what to do with the refugees streaming out of Syria. With more than 4.7 million refugees now in camps in neighboring countries thereby destabilizing these economies, maybe the U.S. could use some of its diplomatic charm to help repatriate some of the displaced by ensuring their safe return to Syria. I can not imagine the Russians disagreeing with this proposal. Many of those who left Syria appear to have done so because of Assad’s indiscriminate bombing, and not because of any huge philosophical disagreement with Assad’s regime. Ceasefires involve both sides of a war, so why could an agreement not be forged with Russia and the Assad regime to cease all bombing.
    Syrian cities will need to be rebuilt, and the skills of those displaced by the war will be crucial in achieving that goal. Assad is not a fool, and even he must realize the folly of losing so many skilled and capable citizens in his quest to hold on to power. The refugees too need to accept that quick regime change seldom works (we need to accept that too!), but if they agree to work for a better Syria in the future, their aspirations may eventually be realized.

  • Edward

    That Kerry would advocate an illegal attack on the forces of a country that has not done the US any harm and, most likely, leading to regime change with all its nasty consequences, demonstrates the astounding moral and intellectual morass into which the US foreign policy establishment has sunk.