At a time when the credibility of the United States as either an unbiased actor or reliable ally lies in tatters, Russia has emerged as the one major power whose loyalty to its allies is unquestioned, and whose ability to serve as an honest broker between seemingly intractable opponents is unmatched.
If there is to be peace in Syria, it will be largely due to the patient efforts of Moscow employing deft negotiation, backed up as needed by military force, to shape conditions conducive for a political solution to a violent problem. If ever there was a primer for the art of diplomacy, the experience of Russia in Syria from 2011 to the present is it.
Like the rest of the world, Russia was caught off guard by the so-called Arab Spring that swept through the Middle East and North Africa in 2010-2011, forced to watch from the sidelines as the old order in Tunisia and Egypt was swept aside by popular discontent. While publicly supporting the peaceful transition of power in Tunis and Cairo, in private the Russian government watched the events unfolding in Egypt and the Maghreb with trepidation, concerned that the social and political transformations underway were a continuation of the kind of Western-backed “color revolutions” that had occurred previously in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004).
When, in early 2011, the Arab Spring expanded into Libya, threatening the rule of longtime Russian client Moammar Gadhafi, Russia initially supported the creation of a U.N.-backed no-fly zone for humanitarian purposes, only to watch in frustration as the U.S. and NATO used it as a vehicle to launch a concerted air campaign in a successful bid to drive Gadhafi from power.
Moscow’s refusal to help facilitate that Western-sponsored regime change, however, did not translate into unequivocal support for the continued rule of Assad. Russia supported the appointment of former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head up a process for bringing a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis, and endorsed Annan’s six-point peace plan, put forward in March 2012, which included the possibility of a peaceful transition of power away from Assad.
At the same time Russia was promoting a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian crisis, the U.S. was spearheading a covert program to provide weapons and equipment to anti-Assad forces, funneling shipments from Libya through Turkey and into rebel-controlled areas of Syria. This CIA-run effort, which eventually morphed into a formal operation known as Timber Sycamore, helped fuel an increase in the level of violence inside Syria that made it impossible for the Assad government to fully implement the Annan plan. The inevitable collapse of the Annan initiative was used by the U.S. and its European allies to call for U.N. sanctions against Syria, which were again rejected by Russia.
While Russia continued to call for a political solution to the Syrian crisis that allowed for the potential of Assad being replaced, it insisted that this decision would be made by a process that included the Syrian government, as opposed to the U.S. demand that Assad must first step down.
The Military Solution
The failed Annan initiative was replaced by a renewed U.N.-sponsored process, known as Geneva II, headed by Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat with extensive U.N. experience. The Geneva process stalled as Brahimi sought to bridge the gap between the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition—which insisted upon Assad’s resignation as a precondition to any talks about the future of Syria—and Russia, which continued to insist that the Assad government have a voice in determining Syria’s future.
Complicating these talks was the escalation of violence inside Syria, where anti-Assad forces, building upon the massive amount of military aid received from the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, aggressively pushed for a military victory that would moot the Geneva II process.
By June 2013 the situation had devolved to the point that the U.S., citing allegations that the Syrian government was using a nerve agent against rebel forces, was considering the establishment of no-fly zones in northern Syria and along the Jordanian border. While sold as a humanitarian move designed to create safe zones for Syrian civilians fleeing the fighting, the real purpose of these zones was to carve out large sections of Syrian territory where the opposition could organize and prepare for war under the umbrella of U.S. air power without fear of Syrian government retaliation.
The concept of Syria’s chemical weapons being used by the U.S. to justify military action against the Syrian government was not hypothetical. In 2012, President Barack Obama had declared that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be considered a “red line,” forcing the U.S. to act. When, in August 2013, a major chemical weapons incident occurred in Ghouta (conclusive attribution for the attack does not exist; the U.S. and NATO contend that the Syrian government was behind the attacks, which the Russians and the Syrian government claim were carried out by anti-Assad opposition for the purpose of compelling U.S. intervention), it looked like the U.S. would step in.
Committing to a larger war in Syria was not a politically popular move in the U.S., given the recent experience in Iraq, and when Obama met with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, in September 2013, the Russians suggested a solution—the disarmament of Syrian chemical weapons under the supervision of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). When Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door to that possibility, Russia and Syria jumped on the opportunity, paving the way for one of the great disarmament achievements of modern times, an action that won the OPCW the Nobel Peace Prize for 2013.
The disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons was a huge success, for which Russia received little recognition, despite the major role it played in conceiving and overseeing its implementation. Russia had hoped that the disarmament process could lead to the establishment of international confidence in the Assad government that would translate into a diplomatic breakthrough in Geneva. This was not to be; a major peace conference planned for 2014 collapsed, and efforts to revive the failed talks were sidelined by the escalation of violence in Syria, as the armed opposition, sensing victory, pressed its attacks on the Syrian government.
The situation in Syria was further complicated when, in 2013, the organization formerly known as al-Qaida in Iraq renamed itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and started carving out a so-called caliphate from the ungovernable expanses of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Having established its capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, Islamic State launched a dramatic offensive in early 2014, capturing large swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq, including the Iraqi city of Mosul. By 2015, the Syrian government, under pressure from anti-Assad rebels and the forces of Islamic State, was on the brink of collapse.
The consequences of the loss of Syria to forces dominated by radical Islamic ideology do not seem to have been fully considered by those in the West, such as the U.S. and its European allies, which were funneling military aid to the rebel forces. For Russia, however, which had its own experiences with Muslim separatist movements in the Caucasus region, such a result was deemed an existential threat, with thousands of Russian citizens fighting on the side of Islamic State and the anti-Assad opposition who would logically seek to return to Russia to continue the struggle once victory had been achieved in Syria. In September 2015, Putin urged the Russian Parliament to approve the intervention of the Russian military on the side of the Syrian government. The Parliament passed the resolution, thus beginning one of the most successful military interventions in modern times.
The impact of the Russian intervention was as dramatic as it was decisive. Almost immediately, the Russian air force helped turn the tide on the field of battle, allowing the Syrian army to launch attacks against both the anti-Assad opposition and Islamic State after years of losing ground. The Russian intervention helped pave the way for the commitment by Hezbollah and Iran of tens of thousands of ground troops who helped tipped the scale in favor of the Syrian government. The presence of Russian forces nipped in the bud all talk of Western military intervention and created the conditions for the Syrian government to eventually recapture much of the territory it had lost to Islamic State and the anti-Assad rebels.
The connection between military action and diplomacy is a delicate one. For some nations, like the United States, diplomacy is but a front for facilitating military action—the efforts to secure a U.N. Security Council resolution on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq stand as a prime example. For Russia, however, the decision to intervene militarily in Syria was not seen as an end unto itself, but rather as the means by which Russia could shape the political landscape in such a manner as to make a political solution realistic. From the Russian perspective, the Geneva II process was an empty shell, having been hijacked by Saudi Arabia and its anti-Assad proxies.
In January 2017, Russia took the diplomatic offensive, initiating its own peace process through a series of summits held in the Kazakh capital of Astana. This process, which brought together Turkey, the Syrian government and Iran, together with Russia, quickly supplanted the Geneva II talks as the most viable vehicle for achieving a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict. By directly linking diplomatic talks with the fighting on the ground, the Astana process had a relevance that Geneva II lacked. For its part, Russia was able to woo Turkey away from insisting that Assad must leave, to a stance that recognized the territorial integrity of the Syrian nation, and a recognition that Assad was the legitimate leader of Syria, at least for the time being. The Astana process was lengthy and experienced its share of ups and downs. But today it serves as the foundation of a peace process that, unlike any of its predecessors, has a real chance of success.
Bridging the gap between the finesse of diplomacy and the brutal violence of military action is one of the most difficult tasks imaginable. For its part, the United Nations has undertaken so-called peacekeeping operations with mixed effect. In recognition of the importance and difficulty of this kind of work, the Nobel Committee awarded the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize to the U.N. Peacekeepers. When the diplomatic solutions reached in Astana needed to be implemented in Syria, Russia turned to the most unlikely source for turning objectives into reality: the Russian military police. A relatively new entity in the Russian military establishment, formed only in 2012, the military police were tasked with a wide range of missions, including convoy protection, area security, restoring law and order and resettlement operations.
In late 2016, as the Syrian army was positioned to recapture the city of Aleppo from rebel forces, Russia deployed a battalion of military police to Syria. The mission of these troops was not to engage in frontline fighting, but rather to restore law and order and win the trust and confidence of a civilian population wary of the potential for retaliation at the hands of the victorious Syrian army.
By all accounts, the Russian military police performed admirably, and soon the Russian ministry of defense dispatched more battalions of these new peacekeepers, who quickly established a reputation of being fair arbiters of the many cease-fire agreements brokered through the Astana process. The Russian military police were ubiquitous, whether policing the no-man’s land separating warring parties, escorting convoys of rebel fighters and their families to safe zones or providing security for OPCW inspectors.
The final phases of the Syrian conflict are playing out in northern Syria today. The last vestiges of the anti-Assad opposition, having been taken over by al-Qaida, are dug in in their final bastion in Idlib Province, their ultimate defeat at the hands of the combined Russian-Syrian armed forces all but assured. The American intervention in northeastern Syria, begun in 2015 as a means of confronting and defeating Islamic State but continued and expanded in 2017 as a vehicle for destabilizing the Assad government, has imploded in the face of a geopolitical reality in transition, facilitated in large part by the combined forces of Russian diplomacy in Astana and Russian-led military action on the ground in Syria.
By successfully wooing Turkey away from the U.S., Russia has dictated the reality on the ground in Syria, greenlighting a Turkish incursion that put the American forces deployed there in an impossible situation, prompting their evacuation. While the U.S. continues to maintain a military presence in Syria, occupying a border crossing point at Tanf and a series of military positions along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in order to secure nearby Syrian oil fields, the ability of the U.S. to logistically sustain this force is doubtful, making its eventual withdrawal from Syria inevitable.
Moreover, by compelling an American withdrawal from northeastern Syria, Russia broke the back of the U.S.-supported Kurdish autonomous entity known as Rojava, and in doing so prevented a larger war between Turkey, the Kurds and the U.S.
In greenlighting the Turkish incursion into northern Syria, the Russians invoked the 1998 Adana Treaty, which guarantees the sovereign inviolability of Syria’s borders. The processes involved in stabilizing the Turkish-Syrian border, defeating the anti-Assad forces in Idlib, evicting the Americans from Syrian soil, and integrating the Kurds into a future Syrian government are lengthy, complex and not necessarily assured of a positive outcome. One thing is certain, however: The prospects for peace in Syria are greater today than at any time since 2011. And the fact that Russia has deployed even more battalions of its military police to Syria to oversee implementation of the current cease-fire bodes well for the prospects of success.
Despite literally salvaging victory from the jaws of defeat, the scope of the Russian accomplishment in Syria is muted in the United States, thanks to rampant Russophobia that has insinuated itself into every aspect of the domestic political discourse. Under normal circumstances, the Russian accomplishment in Syria would have been deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize, if not for the Russian diplomats and leaders who oversaw the effort to forge peace from the furnace of war, then at least for the Russian military police whose actions in Syria embody the very definition of humanitarian peacekeeping.
Over time, international historians will come to appreciate what Russia accomplished in Syria, potentially ending a sectarian conflict that could easily have served as the foundation for a decades-long conflagration with regional and global consequences.
Whether American historians will ever be capable of doing the same is unknown. But this much is true: In the years to come, children will be born of parents whose lives were not terminated or otherwise destroyed by a larger Syrian conflict that almost assuredly would have transpired if not for the honest broker services provided by Russia. Intentionally or not, Russian diplomacy prevented the United States from embarking on a foreign policy disaster of its own making. While it is highly doubtful that Americans will ever muster the moral fortitude to say so publicly, those who know the truth should find the time to whisper, “Thanks, Putin,” between the barrage of anti-Russian propaganda that floods the American mainstream media today.
Like it or not, in Syria, the Russians saved us from ourselves.