Russia, U.S. Reach Agreement as Syrian Forces Falter

syrian-marines

Syrian Marines (Photo from Abkhazian Network News Agency)

Secretary of State John Kerry announced a deal with Russia on Friday to “reduce violence, ease suffering and resume movement toward a negotiated peace and a political transition in Syria.” The agreement includes a cessation of hostilities starting September 12th, the end of Russia targeting non-Nusra (Jabhat al-Nusra, recently rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the al-Qaida offshoot in Syria) opposition forces, restrictions on the Syrian Air Force, unimpeded humanitarian access and a demilitarized zone in Aleppo.

In exchange for this, the United States will work jointly with Russia to target Nusra together. Whether this is a good deal or not is yet to be seen. Secretary Kerry says the deal “has the ability to be a turning point—a moment of change.” There have been different reactions on Twitter:

But why have the Russians agreed to a deal with the US now? Perhaps a clue lies in the fact that the tone has begun to change online about Russia’s intervention in Syria, where just months ago it was considered a victory by many.

In a piece written for Gazeta.ru, an online publication whose editor was replaced by a pro-government appointee during Putin’s media crackdown in 2013 and 2014, a retired Russian officer argues that “it is impossible to win the war with such an ally as Assad’s army.”

He describes a Syrian Arab Army that is too small, undisciplined, unmotivated, and corrupt to defeat the “illegal armed groups” (such as the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces) it is fighting. While Assad’s army mans checkpoints and extorts the local population, “the actual fighting against opposition groups is mostly done by Syrian militias, the Lebanese Hezbollah Shia units, Iranian and Iraqi volunteers and Private Military Companies.”

The Russian officer goes as far as to suggest the only hope for Russia is to disband Assad’s army and reform a new one from scratch—though he admits the political will to finance such an endeavor is absent.

Similarly, The Atlantic Council’s Faysal Itani published a piece today backtracking on his prediction that the Syrian insurgency would soon be impotent. After some impressive successes post-Russian air campaign, Syrian forces now appear unable to hold their newly occupied territory.

If Russia has decided that it cannot depend on local forces to maintain the territory that it has won for them and it does not wish to commit its own ground forces, then a deal with the US is prudent.

 

Itani observes that the biggest problem Assad faces is manpower. The Aleppo siege was broken by a relatively small force of an estimated 4,000 rebels and the recent successes by opposition forces in Hama province may involve as little as 2,500 rebels, yet Assad’s forces have been unfit to counter. It appears that Assad is unable to hold two fronts simultaneously.

If Russia has decided that it cannot depend on local forces to maintain the territory that it has won for them and it does not wish to commit its own ground forces, then a deal with the US is prudent.

While touted as a success by the State Department, Russia likely sees this deal as a win for them: they get help from the United States Air Force while their client, the Syrian Arab Air Force, gets a break. The Gazeta piece claims that the Syrian Arab Air Force is rundown, lacking sufficient manpower, aircraft, and ordinance.

azaz_syria_during_the_syrian_civil_war_missing_front_of_house

Destruction in Azaz, near Aleppo (Wikimedia Commons photo)

The much published “barrel bombs” are a result of a scarcity of real bombs and both pilot training and aircraft maintenance has effectively ceased due to war restrictions.

Any deal to reduce suffering in Syria—even temporarily—is a good one. Humanitarian access to the destroyed city of Aleppo is desperately needed. But joint Russian/US strikes on Nusra, while in the US’s interest, also serve to help Assad. As is now unfortunately common in the Syrian conflict, efforts to end the war by pressuring one actor only seem to help prolong it by unintentionally benefiting two or more other actors who may or may not be aligned.

Such has been the fate of Syria for the last five and a half years. Decisive victory, for any side, still remains a distant goal.

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