Creating Strategic Options: Why Russia Struck a Deal with the US Over Syria

Main Image Credit Image courtesy of US Mission/Eric Bridiers.

Despite the obvious antagonism between Russia and the US, the two states can also cooperate, as the current deal over Syria indicates, especially when Moscow wishes to expand its available strategic options.

The full and frank exchange of views between the US and Russia continues unabated. During a 7 September speech at Oxford University, the US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter described Moscow as having a ‘clear ambition to erode the principled international order that has served the United States, our allies and partners, the international community, and in fact Russia itself, so well’.

Carter’s criticism did not go unanswered; in an equally direct response, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu pointed out in a statement that one ‘should not confuse the international order with an American one’; it is the US  ‘alongside their Western partners, who have been consistently destroying the basic foundations of the existing world [order], starting with Bosnia [and] Kosovo, [and including] Iraq and Libya’.  Without a doubt, this shows strategic competition between the two powers, with plenty of point-scoring. However, it also reveals a desire for cooperation when it serves the interests of the Kremlin, as the recent US–Russia deal over Syria potentially indicates.

Russia intervened in Syria for a variety of reasons, but its action fits with Moscow’s enduring desire to check perceived US arrogance in setting ‘international world order’ rules. Russia has succeeded in making this point, and the recent US–Russia deal over a putative ceasefire in Syria strengthens a key Russian objective: to create an image of the US and Russia as equal partners in any attempt to resolve crises in the Middle East.

There is also an additional incentive for cooperation. Russia has advocated support for what it sees as Bashar Al-Assad’s ‘legitimate’ regime in Syria. However, Moscow must also know that as long as it supports an Assad regime which cannot produce a decisive military victory, Russia will remain stuck in an open-ended military conflict. Therefore, in an indirect way, Russia’s deal with the US also adds a potential point of influence to Moscow over Assad, by indicating to the Syrian leader that – while he continues to enjoy Russian support – he should not assume that this backing is limitless.

Whether Russia and its allies are sincere about honouring the terms of the deal will only be revealed in the next few days and weeks. Endorsements of the deal from Assad and – in particular – Iran have raised alarm bells that it may somehow be used as a way to gain the upper hand in the conflict over the US-led coalition and the rebel ‘opposition’ groups.

Assad must surely be concerned that this US–Russia deal, if implemented successfully, will bring the prospect of political transition closer, further threatening his position. The Syrian government has already added conditions to the ceasefire deal, saying it will allow aid into besieged parts of the country only if that aid is coordinated through the government itself. And, for its part, Iran has long been concerned that Russia may use its intervention to strike a deal with the US, which may ignore its interests.

On the other hand, the US is well aware of the risks of sharing information with Russia that could, in turn, be used by the Assad regime to target groups it supports. So, although Russia and the US will target Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS or IS) and the Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham – the successor to jihadi group Jabhat Al-Nusrah – Russia understandably is sceptical of Washington’s official stance on supporting most rebel groups as legitimate ‘opposition’. Given that Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham is working alongside other groups that the US has not deemed to be terrorists, any information-sharing between Washington and Moscow could allow Russia – or, even worse, Assad - to widen the range of opponent groups it might attack.

Yet despite all these potential pitfalls, the agreement with the US provides Russia with more options, and particularly indicates to the Syrian government that Moscow can be flexible about who it cooperates with, if the conditions are right. It also allows the Kremlin to demonstrate to the Russian population that the country’s leadership is not interested in dragging out an already long war, at a time when the domestic economy is suffering, United Russia (Putin’s party) is dropping further in popularity in the lead-up to parliamentary elections, and there have been sporadic regional strikes and protests about the economic conditions in the country.

It is unclear exactly how much influence Moscow has over Assad. The fact that Assad has often said or done things that run counter to any semblance of a ‘united’ front in the Russian–Syrian alliance may highlight Russia’s limited control over him; an unconfirmed rumour that Russia had asked Assad to step down last year, which the Syrian leader supposedly rejected, appears to underline this. Either way, comments made by Assad hours before the latest ceasefire came into force reiterated his resolve to stay in power, stating that he will take back all the land held by ‘terrorists’ and rebuild the country.

It might also be the case that Russia is choosing not to influence him, using claims of a lack of control over a sovereign government as a convenient excuse. One would assume that if Russia really wanted Assad to listen, Moscow could simply withdraw the air support that was so crucial to Assad’s survival in September 2015. This might also have been part of the motivation behind the announced ‘withdrawal’ of the main part of Russian forces in March 2016. However, this was neither a real Russian exit from the conflict, nor did it have any real impact on how Assad behaved during peace talks. Ultimately, a real withdrawal while the war was still raging – and without any sign of a decisive outcome in the near future – would make Russia’s entire experience of intervention seem pointless, and Moscow would further lose broader geopolitical influence if Assad subsequently fell.  

Therefore, although scepticism about the US–Russia deal continues, the agreement shows how Moscow can create options for itself in Syria. Russia is not winning in Syria, as no one power can, but it has shown itself to be adaptable and at times pragmatic. Brokering a deal with the US places Russia where it wants to be on the international stage, but it also adds a precedent for future cooperation that reduces Russia’s reliance on Iran, Assad and Hezbollah. In so doing, Moscow may be better placed to secure its own interests in whatever future Syrian state exists and whatever Middle East emerges from this mess.


Sarah Lain

Associate Fellow

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