The suspected Russian attack on a humanitarian aid convoy and the bombings over Aleppo, accompanying the Syrian military’s announcement of the cease-fire’s end on September 19, confirmed that a solution to the political and humanitarian crisis in Syria is nowhere in sight. The American and Russian- sponsored truce was supposed to function as a confidence-building measure for the success of both a future political transition for Syria and future cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. However, tensions have only heightened in the region. These and other recent events indicate that the turmoil in Syria is increasingly becoming a stage on which global and regional tensions play out.
The conflict between the supporters of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels who oppose him is at the heart of Syria’s civil war: opposition to Assad catalyzed the civil war, and the brutalities of his regime and its foreign supporters have perpetuated it. Assad is internationally recognized as a brutal leader who violently forces his people into submission. He has employed starvation and chemical weapons against civilians to hurt rebel forces, the most notable example of which is the 2013 sarin gas attack carried out by his regime, which killed roughly 1,400 civilians in the Ghouta area (1). According to the Syrian American Medical Society, 161 documented chemical attacks have occurred in Syria from the beginning of the insurgency through 2015, primarily by the Assad regime (2). The most recent of these took place on September 6, when an attack in Aleppo targeted civilians with chlorine gas explosives in territory held by rebel groups (3). These attacks not only sow widespread terror amongst civilians but also have the potential to create an international norm condoning the use of chemical weapons.
For these and other humanitarian reasons, many global powers have condemned Assad and his regime. Russia, Iran, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are the exceptions to this rule, providing political and military support to ensure Assad stays in power. In some ways, Assad’s grip on Syria has weakened, as he now controls less than half of Syria’s territory and his military forces are depleted. In other words, the unrest in Syria is strengthening his command. When compared to jihadist organizations like ISIS and the new Al Qaeda-affiliated Levant Conquest Front, Assad appears to be a lesser evil that poses no direct threat to the Western world. Recent actions by anti-Assad states support this perception: The US has stopped calling for his removal from a position of authority, and in August, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced that his country is willing to accept a role for Assad during present and transitional periods of instability (4). Assad likewise continues to succeed because his opponents are divided among foreign powers, terrorist groups, and religious and ethnic lines.
Iran views Syria as essential to its regional strategy because Syria provides access to Hezbollah, which counterbalances Israel’s nuclear weapons. Iran was the first state to send soldiers and supplies to back Assad. Russia has likewise propped up Assad from the beginning of the conflict, vouching for him at the United Nations and supplying weapons to his regime (5). Syria is one of Russia’s few remaining allies, but more importantly, the country presents an opportunity for Russia to compete with Western dominance in the Middle East. Russia and Iran’s shared interest in Syria and Assad’s regime has resulted in unparalleled military cooperation between the two countries. The extent of this relationship was revealed last month when Russia bombed targets in Syria using an Iranian air base (6). Previously, only America and its allies were able to use bases in a Middle Eastern country to strike targets in another, and some Iranian commanders have now suggested that Iran and Russia will conduct joint naval exercises and have use of Iranian naval bases in the Persian Gulf (7).
Over the course of the Syrian civil war, Russia and Iran have coordinated military planning and combined intelligence. Russia has even supplied advanced missiles to Iran. The two states’ resentment toward U.S. dominance and its attempts to impede their ambitions provide plenty incentive for collaboration in this arena. Rivalries between Iran and the Arab states that border it further drive Iran to strengthen its ties with Russia. However, as long as a victory in Syria remains elusive for either side, Iran and Russia will not receive the economic lift or international acceptance they both desire.
Though both countries admitted the agreement was not based on trust, the U.S. and Russian-brokered ceasefire presented significant opportunity for military cooperation between the former Cold War enemies. The ceasefire negotiations arose during a time when relations between the U.S. and Russia are especially strained; it was only possible because the two states support, and thus have influence over, opposite sides of the Syrian conflict. Following the US airstrikes on September 17 that were intended to target ISIS forces but instead killed over sixty Syrian troops, the Syrian military declared an end to the ceasefire. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry contested this declaration, saying “We need to see what the Russians say” before any official decision regarding the ceasefire is made (8). “The important thing,” Kerry continued, “is the Russians need to control Assad” (9). However, the odds that the agreement can be salvaged are slim. The probable failure of the ceasefire has severe consequences for Syrians in desperate need of humanitarian aid. It also indicates that the eventual collaboration between Russia and the U.S. against ISIS and other terrorist organization desired by the ceasefire negotiators is unlikely, and that U.S.-Russian relations will remain strained for the present. Above all, the termination of the ceasefire highlights the complexity of and obstacles to resolving the Syrian conflict, which at present has no foreseeable conclusion.
(1) Malso, Jared. "Assad's Regime Is Still Using Chemical Weapons in Syria." Time. September 14, 2016. Accessed September 16, 2016. http://time.com/4492670/syria-chemical-weapon-aleppo-assad-regime/.
(4) Wieting, Ayse. "Turkey: Assad Can Be Part of Transition in Syria." The Big Story. August 20, 2016. Accessed September 19, 2016. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/ef6fa94895854d96abb111ccc11986d0/turkey-assad-can-be-part-transition-syria.
(5) Fisher, Max. "Straightforward Answers to Basic Questions About Syria’s War." The New York Times. September 18, 2016. Accessed September 18, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/19/world/middleeast/syria-civil-war-bashar-al-assad-refugees-islamic-state.html?rref=collection/timestopic/Assad, Bashar al-.
(6) Nasr, Vali R. "A Russian-Iranian Axis." The New York Times. September 16, 2016. Accessed September 19, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/17/opinion/a-russian-iranian-axis.html.
(8) DeYoung, Karen, and Erin Cunningham. "Syria's 7-day Grace Period Ends with No Aid and Cease-fire in Tatters." Washington Post. September 19, 2016. Accessed September 19, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/syrias-7-day-grace-period-ends-with-no-aid-and-cease-fire-in-tatters/2016/09/19/633ecd72-7dea-11e6-ad0e-ab0d12c779b1_story.html.
Image: © Rkaphotography | Dreamstime.com - President Assad And The Ruins Of Apemea, Syria Photo