The failure of Russia and the United States yesterday to reach a new agreement on Syria after four months of negotiations, comes to illustrate the complex reality of the war and the limited leverage of both Washington and Moscow in shaping its outcome.
Barack Obama’s and Vladimir Putin’s inability to broker a deal is less about their shrinking differences around the war, or willingness to agree. It is more of a mutual realization of powerlessness in implementing such deal, as the trajectory of Syrian conflict and actions of rivaling actors takes separate path from that sought by the Kremlin and the White House.
Why the talks failed
Meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hangzhou, China, Putin and Obama had every intention of reaching a deal in Syria. American-Russian convergence in finding a political settlement, prioritizing counterterrorism, and saving the faltering components of the Syrian state has defined both of their interests -albeit different approaches- for over two years now.
Hence the proposal that each Moscow and Washington submitted to the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition was framed around these interests. It was centered around increased intelligence sharing to target the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda elements within Jabhat Fatah Sham (JFS, formerly Jabhat Nusra) or other organizations, and in return in allowing more humanitarian aid to East Aleppo as well as restrain the Assad regime from aerial bombing non-JFS rebels in Northern Syria.
In theory the US-Russia proposal makes perfect sense for both Obama and Putin, but not to those calling the shots inside Syria and that’s precisely why it failedJoyce Karam
In theory the US-Russia proposal makes perfect sense for both Obama and Putin, but not to those calling the shots inside Syria and that’s precisely why it failed. Implementing the deal would have required adherence from the Assad regime, Iranian proxies, Syrian rebels, the political opposition and regional players, a mission impossible in today’s Syria given the war dynamics and the ground developments.
Just as Obama and Putin were reiterating in China their commitment to a political solution and a ceasefire, clashes and bombings were intensifying in Syria. In the last 48 hours, the regime regained control of some of its lost territory in East Aleppo, the rebels targeted a new front in Hama, while ISIS claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks in four Syrian provinces.
The rhetoric heard from China, and the actors negotiating with not one Syrian in the room, brought forth a completely detached setting from the reality of the war. This in itself doomed the talks to fail or even a deal if it were to be finalized.
The parameters of the war in Aleppo are dictated by the forces on the ground backed on the regime side by Iran, and on the opposition side by regional Arab states. While Russia had hoped to pressure the Assad regime into accepting a ceasefire, and the US its allied rebels to break ties with JFS, neither of them has the needed leverage to achieve such outcome.
Hezbollah and the Iranian government have had more say in steering the Aleppo battle and influencing Assad than Moscow. The events of the last 48 hrs in Aleppo only emphasize this discrepancy between Russia and its allies. Similarly, deep distrust defines the relation between the rebels fighting in Aleppo and the Obama administration.
There is no evidence that Washington would have succeeded in isolating JFS from the coalition fighting in Aleppo, or that Moscow would have stopped Assad air force from adhering to its part of the deal.
If anything, the last four years of the Syrian conflict were a loud and clear evidence of limitations of both American and Russian leverage in Syria. From controlling the arming to extremist factions of the rebels, to pushing the regime to releasing a number of those kidnapped, both the U.S. and Russia have failed in producing the desired outcome.
War of attrition continues
If the US-Russian agreement was materialized, it would have improved ties between Obama and Putin four months and a half before the US President leaves office. It would have also set the stage for the next American President to deal with Syria as primarily a counterterrorism nightmare, while granting Russia the lead in seeking a political solution.
However, the grim situation on the ground and the dichotomy between the actors inside Syria and those on the outside negotiating a political solution, promises a continuation of the war until the internal dynamics have shifted.
In the early 1980s during the Lebanese civil war, host countries from Switzerland to France attempted to broker peace between different factions without achieving that goal until a decade later when all sides had given up on a military solution.
The Taif agreement that ended the 15-year-old Lebanese war brokered a new power structure, something that the Assad regime is nowhere near contemplating or accepting in Syria. The current path of the fighting, population transfers, and different militias grabbing control of territories in the country puts Syria closer to a road of de facto partition than a political solution.
In the meantime, both Russia and the US will likely keep attempting to find common ground in Syria around counterterrorism, while acknowledging lack of leverage for significant political progress to settle the conflict.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam