Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of victory in Syria has already been eclipsed by his announcement on his willingness to use military force against violators of the ceasefire if he doesn’t get assurances from the United States about how it will control the truce. Meanwhile, it’s become clear that more Russian military hardware is going into Syria instead of leaving, and that Russian forces are openly engaged in ground combat.
Is Putin really offering to secure peace in Syria? Probably not. The conditions that led to Syria’s death spiral into civil war have still not been addressed, and Russia’s withdrawal is a facade. Putin’s announcement highlights that while Russia is a main player in the Syrian conflict, it is far from willing or able to assure peace.
What Russia has earned
Russia’s military intervention in Syria has redefined its role on the global stage and upended the Middle East’s power politics. Russia used force to protect its interests and head off the West before it could act decisively against Russia’s strategic partners. In doing so, Russia has made itself the de facto main player in the Syrian civil war.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria—and the seat it has won among geopolitical decisionmakers—comes with responsibilities. All Russia is currently offering is boisterous opposition to the United States and a nebulous argument that it is fighting terrorism and maintaining Western values. Russian leadership might truly believe this, and/or is using it as a smokescreen to divert domestic attention. But whatever Russian leaders think (and whether they like it or not), their country is now accountable for ensuring the successful implementation of a peaceful settlement to the Syrian crisis.
What Russia signed up for
Russia decisively committed in Syria in a way the West did not—and in the realm of military interventionism, presence gets the prize. As pundits debate the merits of Russia’s disengagement in Syria, it’s important to remember that Russia has responsibilities under the Joint Statement of the United States and Russian Federation on Cessation of Hostilities in Syria and U.N. Resolution 2254.
According to the cessation of hostilities, the Russians will:
Fully implement U.N. Resolution 2254 and facilitate a political negotiation process;
Cease attacks “with any weapons” on groups jointly designated as armed opposition groups vice those designated as Islamic State, the Nusra Front, or other terror organizations designated by the U.N. Security Council;
Refrain from acquiring or seeking territory from other parties that are ceasefire signatories;
Allow “rapid, unhindered, sustained, and immediate” humanitarian relief to areas under regime operational control and to all who need it; and
Respond proportionally and in self-defense against those who represent an immediate threat.
So, Russia has committed—formally and in writing—not just to ceasing its own attacks, but to advancing a political negotiation process and supporting humanitarian relief.
The reality of Russian power
While Russia has achieved many of its own objectives—namely sustaining the Bashar Assad regime for the short term—how will it meet these broader terms? By pursuing a zero-sum path to “victory” and exacerbating refugee outflows from Syria, Russia has put tremendous pressure on Europe and Turkey, who are now facing associated security crises. At the same time, Syria’s less-resourced neighbors like Jordan and Lebanon are feeling even more acute stress. Furthermore, U.S. leadership is more in question than at any time since the end of the Vietnam War. Regardless of Russian efforts at reconciliation, the West is unlikely to invest in rebuilding Syrian society until the root causes of the civil war are addressed.
Russia has helped create what is likely only a slight reprieve before a resumption of chaos, and the reality is that it does not have the ability or the willingness to meet its agreed-upon obligations.
In this context, Russia has helped create what is likely only a slight reprieve before a resumption of chaos, and the reality is that it does not have the ability or the willingness to meet its agreed-upon obligations. Russia cannot meet the delineated timelines, the stipulation that the Syrian people rightly decide the future of Syria, or the formal negotiations on a peaceful political transition. Its delivery of humanitarian relief is dwarfed by the Syrian people’s need and the conditions that Assad’s unrestricted war has wrought on the country. The Russians are unable to move forward with this process—which requires Assad to relinquish power—because they promoted the very belligerence of the regime, the war’s central provocateur. To table discussions on Assad’s future while he continues his intransigence toward the Syrian opposition and the West undermines Russian credibility in brokering a legitimate peace.
Analysts have pointed to Russia’s “Chechenization” of the conflict, where Moscow subdued an Islamist-led insurgency without getting bogged down as the Soviet Union had in Afghanistan. This comparison implies that the Syrian war will get worse before it get better. Russian military interventions are not about creating economically self-sufficient places, bringing political reform and freedom, or alleviating human suffering. Russian military intervention gives us Groznys, not Seouls. It gives us failed socioeconomic outcomes like in Transnistria and Abkahzia. No one is demanding a Russian plan to reinvigorate Syrian society or rebuild its infrastructure, or for Russian reparations for refugees in Greece, Turkey, Germany, or even Serbia. While the United States and the West may unsuccessfully and naïvely hold themselves to a “you break it, you buy it” standard when it conducts military interventions, this is not a part of the Russian calculus. This is not why nations like Russia engage in limited conflicts or fight wars.
While the United States and the West may unsuccessfully and naïvely hold themselves to a “you break it, you buy it” standard when it conducts military interventions, this is not a part of the Russian calculus.
The Russian military intervention is about Russian interests and gaining an advantageous position within a world order in which it demands to be an equal but sees no equals. Military intervention is meant to upend the international order to the benefit of only Russia and those who align with its interests. The Syrian ceasefire began because Russia said it could. It represents a strategic pause for Russia to reposition itself both politically at home and abroad, and militarily on the battlefield. If it ends, it will likely be because it claims the United States is not living up to its terms, as well as if conditions become favorable for Assad to resume military operations to reclaim lost territory. This is hardly the mark of a nation seeking to lead the peace process and cessation of hostilities. By resorting to the use of force, Russia will be accountable for the ceasefire’s failure, and will prove itself unwilling to peacefully advance the terms it agreed to in order to secure a lasting peace.