The Russia–U.S. agreement on ceasefire in Syria signed on September 10, 2016 in Geneva became the high point of 14-hour talks and many months of diplomatic efforts on the part of Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry. Despite all the existing concerns, the political importance of the agreement for U.S.–Russia relations goes far beyond Syria and could become a positive precedent for working together on other aspects of Middle Eastern politics.
The Russia–U.S. agreement on ceasefire in Syria signed on September 10, 2016 in Geneva became the high point of 14-hour talks and many months of diplomatic efforts on the part of Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry. Prior to that, the agreement received an important impetus during a short meeting between presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in China, where the Syrian issue was treated with particular attention.
Sceptical assessments concerning the prospects of the agreement’s actual implementation dominate nearly all analysis of the Geneva accord, and they do have grounds. The parties themselves appear to emphasize different aspects of the document as its principal part, stressing their own diplomatic achievements. The United States focuses on the fact that it has convinced Russia to “restrain the forces of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria from conducting any air operations over areas held by Nusra and other opposition forces.” Moscow, in turn, is counting on Washington’s ability to ensure that the ceasefire is actually maintained by U.S.-supported opposition groups, as well as on its contribution to delimitating areas held by a part of these groups and by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (known as Al-Nusra Front prior to July 2016). Thus, each party expects the other to be mostly responsible for potential breaches of the ceasefire.
It is difficult to ensure the implementation of the agreement even from a geographical point of view. Over the last few months, Syria has become even more fragmented in respect to security and “control areas” held by various groups and foreign troops. This significantly hampers the possibility of the agreement’s jurisdiction covering the entire country (even excluding Islamist-controlled areas), which requires different tools to be used in different provinces.
The actual content of the agreement remains undisclosed, which is one of the main points of criticism in the West and in some Middle Eastern countries. Its opponents were quick to elaborate on all the phobias linked to such an approach, saying that the agreement was “forced on Syria.” At the same time, Sergey Lavrov stated that non-disclosure is linked to the fact that the documents “contain sensitive and serious information. We [Russia and the United States] do not want this information in the hands of those who would try to disrupt the implementation of humanitarian access measures and other parts of our agreements.”
Finally, the position of the Syrian conflict’s regional “sponsors,” such as Turkey, the Arabian monarchies of the Gulf, and Iran, could become another challenge for the accord. The agreement has created the perception that Russia and the United States have strengthened their positions, and there is a strong temptation to manipulate the respective Shia and Sunni groups inside Syria to undermine the initiative of the “great powers.” In particular, Iran and Saudi Arabia voice their concerns that the accord does not take into account the greater part of their interests. Thus, even though Tehran and Riyadh publicly show their support, it would be erroneous to underestimate their pessimism in regard to the accord’s ultimate success and in regard to the actions it might prompt the parties to take. At the same time, very few believe that Iran and Saudi Arabia could suggest something constructive today, while a “war of attrition” is hardly in line with both Tehran and Riyadh’s long-term interests.
Washington and Moscow also did not hide how difficult it was to reach the agreement, particularly on the part of the United States. During the talks, the Pentagon and some intelligence services were the staunchest opponents of closer military cooperation and intelligence exchange between Russia and the United States. It should be particularly emphasized, however, that recently, U.S. Secretary of Defense made a statement supporting closer coordination between Russia and the United States. In Russia, there was criticism of a different kind: bloggers were particularly sceptical, and one person even noted that the parties reached an agreement concerning their own interests, but presented it as a compromise or a consensus. Yet even if this is true, the accord means one important thing: Russia and the United States, whether in their own interests or otherwise, are ready to show political will to implement the accord and influence the warring parties.
In this regard, the question of whether Moscow and Washington understand all the risks implied by the agreement is a non-issue: the diplomats who held the talks and prepared the accord are experienced and professional enough to foresee potential difficulties at least as well as an outside observer. The key issue is how precise Moscow and Washington are in assessing their ability to influence their allies and even those groups they support. Past experience and current cooperation demonstrate that when it comes to ceasefire implementation, they cannot always be duly controlled and pressured.
It is all the more important in this connection to preserve the political will demonstrated by both parties in Geneva. What is of primary importance in this regard is to minimize the influence of “unwanted irritants” on the decision-makers. In Russia, it is the growing criticism of “the passivity of the United States in promoting delimitation” of the opposition and the radicals. In the United States, it is the media’s constant references to “the White House once again losing to the Kremlin” and “Moscow’s attempts to use the accord for its own political purposes, primarily, to subtly criticize the sanctions and to show the world that the American policy of ‘isolating Russia’ has failed.” It puts additional pressure on the administration and President Obama, who is interested, if not in settling the Syrian crisis before his term in office ends, then in paving a visible institutionalized way to such a settlement, which could ultimately be “packaged” as his achievement.
At the same time, the accord should serve as a litmus test for all the interested actors, revealing the extent of their responsibility and the earnestness of their intentions to establish peace in Syria, and demonstrate the true degree of their readiness to put the country’s security above their own political interests, which often lack any “strategic depth” whatsoever.
Despite all the existing concerns, the political importance of the agreement for U.S.–Russia relations goes far beyond Syria and could become a positive precedent for working together on other aspects of Middle Eastern politics. As Fyodor Lukyanov justly notes, “Moscow and Washington have returned to a fairly long-forgotten state when the dialogue between the two countries used to resolve the crucial issues of international politics. And it is not a matter of the unbelievable might of Russia and the United States, as their capabilities to manage global processes have shrunk significantly compared to 30 years ago. It is simply a matter of the number of capable states having dropped drastically.”
Sergey Lavrov’s phrase about “the beginning of a new relationship” sounded more like a wish than a real assessment of the situation. At the same time, if the parties do establish a Joint Implementation Centre “in which the Russian and U.S. militaries and special services will work together on practical issues,” it will be of real use for both Moscow and Washington. It will give a new lease on life to bilateral cooperation on the Syrian question. It will not be strategic, but rather tactical at best. But it might be enough to plug up what appears to be a giant Syrian non-security vortex and prevent further destruction and disintegration of a region that has entered a period of long-term systemic instability.