The agreement between Russia and the United States on Syria: benefits for Moscow
On 9 September in Geneva, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and the US Secretary of State John Kerry signed a package of five documents (not published) which provide for a ceasefire between the government forces and the ‘moderate opposition’ in Syria, and then to a common military action by Russia and the United States against the terrorists of the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Fateh al-Shams (previously known as Jabhat an-Nusra). Under this agreement, a cease-fire came into force on the evening of 12 September. If it holds for a week, Russian and American military officials will create a joint centre to coordinate air strikes against radical Islamists, after having jointly decided where to draw a line between the territories controlled by them and those controlled by the so-called moderate opposition. The Syrian air force is supposed to be be excluded from the joint Russian/American flight zone. The plan also involves the resumption of negotiations between the opposition and the Assad regime.
- The agreement is beneficial especially for the Assad regime and Russia. If it does come into force, it will freeze the territorial status quo, which is more favourable to the regime now than at the time of the announcement of the first ceasefire in February this year. It will also weaken the Washington-sponsored anti-Assad opposition, because it will prevent it from cooperating with the stronger branches of Jabhat al-Fateh al-Shams. As during the previous cease-fire, the agreement does not provide for any sanctions in case of violations.
- If the agreement is fully implemented, which currently appears unlikely, the main benefit for Moscow will be the restriction on the American air forces’ freedom to operate over Syria (the Russian military would have a de facto veto against its use in the joint flight zone), thus protecting the Assad regime against possible US attacks. In addition, the agreement has already led to tensions between Washington and the US-backed Syrian opposition, which sees it as yet another signal that Washington is not consistently supporting it in the fight against Assad. Another benefit for Moscow is the further weakening of the link (on which the US had until recently insisted) between the ceasefire and the initiation of a political process that should remove Assad from power. This is thus another step toward recognition by the United States that the civil war in Syria may only come to an end under conditions which would provide for a merely superficial reconstruction of the existing regime.
- Russian diplomacy has effectively taken advantage of the pre-election desire of the outgoing administration in Washington to be able to claim even a semblance of success in its policy towards Syria (for example, in the form of reduction of civilian casualties). For Moscow, the agreement is also a matter of prestige, because it puts Russia in a position of an equal partner of the US, a partner whose consent is necessary for Washington to achieve its aims. The establishment of the joint operations centre for the American and Russian military forces should also, in the calculations of the Kremlin, create a situation in which continuing economic sanctions and the diplomatic and political isolation of Russia will be seen as counterproductive.