What Russia learns from the Syrian ceasefire

PHOTO: Scanpix/AFP

The ceasefire is good news short term for some Syrians, but bad news long term for the West.

The agreement on a limited cessation of hostilities in Syria is a major step toward the immediate objectives of reducing the bloodshed and allowing delivery of urgent humanitarian aid. The plan seems attractive, especially in the absence of any coherent alternative. But by meeting a wide range of Russian objectives, not limited to Syria itself, it also stores up trouble ahead for the West. In particular, the agreement has confirmed for Russia that assertive military intervention is the most effective means of achieving swift and positive foreign policy results.

Russia has every reason to be satisfied with the current agreement. It achieves a Russian goal that has been consistent since the beginning of the conflict in Syria: stopping military operations by opposition forces against the Assad government. Those opposition groups that sign up to the ceasefire plan also undertake to join the next round of peace talks in Geneva, in exchange for the promise of no further attacks from the government or from Russia. This promises to meet another goal for Russia - a negotiated transition of power in Syria in line with Russia’s interests, rather than the forcible removal of President Assad previously insisted on by the United States.

But the single biggest detriment of the ceasefire agreement is that it demonstrates once again that direct military action overseas is Russia's best method of achieving strategic objectives with little if any adverse consequence. Syria represents the fourth occasion, following Kosovo, Georgia and Ukraine, where decisive Russian military intervention has substantially altered the situation in Moscow's favour. In the last three instances, this has received international endorsement - the 2008 ceasefire was imposed on Georgia by a French president, the Minsk protocols were overseen by both French and German leaders, and now the Syrian agreement has been accepted by the entire 20-member International Syria Support Group. The result can only be to encourage Russia to further military adventurism, confident that the risks of significant international reaction are low.


The area included in the ceasefire plan is likely to be a small proportion of the country, and may not have a major effect on the intensity of Russian operations other than adjusting the targets. Government gains over the last two months, with Russian support, mean much less ground is now held by the moderate opposition. In addition, Russia's involvement in Syria is not just about defeating the opposition: the other goal is also to defeat ISIL, which together with Jabhat al-Nusra is explicitly not included in the cessation of hostilities.

But implementation of the ceasefire presents further potential hurdles. The US and Russia are to decide together where the ceasefire applies and where it does not, based on delineating the areas which are controlled by those groups which have signed up to the agreement.  This may well lead to negotiation and disagreement over what areas are controlled by whom, leaving open the possibility of continuing Russian targeting of opposition forces. Furthermore, Russia has announced that it will carry on with military operations against "terrorists". This is in line with the intent of the ceasefire plan, but Russia continues to label as "terrorists" anybody they wish to attack, including parts of the US-backed opposition. In particular, the Russian habit of claiming opposition groups are in fact Nusra would provide a spurious legitimation for treating them as not covered by the ceasefire.

Moscow has a significant past history of exploiting loopholes in ceasefire agreements, or indeed ignoring them altogether. Russia was accused for years of violating the terms of the 2008 Georgian ceasefire. In fact, although Russian actions certainly went against the spirit of that agreement, they were fully in accordance with a strict literal interpretation of its text - drafted in Moscow. In Ukraine, Russia and its separatist forces found the timing of the Minsk agreement inconvenient, and continued their offensive around Debaltseve after the ceasefire was agreed until they were more satisfied with the tactical position. Violations of the ceasefire have continued ever since.

The assertion in the ceasefire agreement that it «will be monitored in an impartial and transparent manner and with broad media coverage» will not inspire confidence in anyone with experience of Russian media reporting. Two weeks ago, Russia's angry denials that it was using unguided bombs in Syria were illustrated in official media with a Russian Ministry of Defence photograph of one of their aircraft dropping unguided bombs in Syria.

However, the fact that the Syrian ceasefire meets Russian objectives does mean there is a chance that Russia will behave in a more responsible and cooperative manner while overseeing it. Now that Moscow has achieved the recognition as a global influencer which it craved, Russia may feel it worthwhile to appear to be a responsible actor in a highly visible process.

The Longer View

While Europe and the United States are focused on the short-term aim of ending the fighting in Syria - or at least limiting it to operations against ISIL - Russian objectives have a much longer horizon. Syria continues to serve as a useful distraction from Russian actions in Ukraine, with the likely end result of sanctions being lifted - especially if Russia appears to be working alongside Western plans to tackle ISIL, and continues to succeed in its information campaign convincing the West that Ukraine is to blame for the failure to implement the Minsk protocols.

The agreement also furthers the Russian aim of being a key power broker in the Middle East, and the long-cherished objective of recognition of Russian influence. Partnering with the United States to monitor the ceasefire chimes with Russia's yearning for its former role as the other superpower in a bipolar world. In this way, the plan can be seen in Moscow as a step towards reversing the «historical anomaly» of reduced Russian global influence following the end of the Cold War. In the meantime, Russia's armed forces continue to benefit from the unparalleled training opportunity offered by operations in Syria. President Putin has described the conflict as «an exercise» for Russia, and his generals claim that it is less expensive to ship men and equipment to Syria for short tours of duty involving live firing and operational conditions than it is to conduct large-scale exercises in Russia.

The ceasefire agreement significantly diminishes the perceived power of the West, and the United States in particular. For Moscow, the change in US policy from insisting on the removal of Assad toward a negotiated political transition represents a retreat in the face of Russian military assertiveness. The United States can be portrayed as having abandoned its allies: Secretary of State John Kerry has now announced that the opposition groups which the US was supporting will make themselves targets for continuing airstrikes and ground operations if they do not cooperate with Russia's plans and sign up to the ceasefire and the political negotiations. Following the September 2013 chemical weapons agreement, this represents the second high-profile occasion that Secretary Kelly has been used as a tool to endorse and validate a plan for Syria that was drawn up in Moscow.

All of these processes, and in particular the confirmation that Western policy can be changed through military action, will embolden Russia to be firmer in pursuit of its objectives in future. This makes it even harder for the West to protect itself against Russian assertiveness, without the availability of significant military force to act as an immediate and present deterrent.