The agreement on a limited cessation of hostilities in Syria has achieved some of its immediate aims of reducing bloodshed and creating conditions for the delivery of urgent humanitarian aid. But by meeting a wide range of Russian objectives, not limited to Syria itself, it also stores up trouble 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 (for Moscow) 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 signed up to the ceasefire plan also undertook to join the next round of peace talks in Geneva, in exchange for the promise – whether sincere or not – of no further attacks from the government or from Russia. This is in line with another key aim for Russia: a negotiated transition of power in Syria, rather than the forcible removal of President Bashar al-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 current rounds of claim and counter-claim over the extent of the ceasefire, and indeed where and to whom it applies, were inevitable. Russia had already announced that it would 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 Jabhat al-Nusra provides a spurious legitimation for claiming they are not covered by the ceasefire.
Moscow has a consistent 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 that ceasefire have continued ever since.
The longer view
In addition, 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 Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – 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 ISIS, 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 Vladimir 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.
In Moscow and elsewhere, the ceasefire agreement significantly diminishes the perceived power of the West, and in particular of the United States. The change in US policy from insisting on the removal of Assad toward possibly accepting him as part of 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 announced that the opposition groups which the US was supporting would make themselves targets for continuing airstrikes and ground operations if they did 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 Kerry 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 – especially in the absence of demonstrated political will to do so, and of significant military force in European states bordering Russia to act as a present and credible deterrent.
To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback