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Will Syria Be a New Ukraine?

The U.S. and Russia announced a ceasefire in Syria on Monday—but with Russia's track record in conflict resolution, it is anything but certain.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a security council meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, on February 24, 2016. (Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a security council meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, on February 24, 2016. (Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images)

The joint United States-Russian announcement earlier this week agreeing to a "cessation of hostilities" in Syria starting Saturday marked a much-needed positive development in the bloody conflict that has killed as many as 470,000 people over the last five years. The announcement came after heavy communication between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Sunday evening, followed by a call between Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin on Monday.

Already, top U.S. intelligence officials have publicly doubted that Russia will remain committed to the terms of the ceasefire agreement. Russian media has repeated the Kremlin's pledge to focus on upholding the "Plan A" agreement rather than considering any "Plan B" insinuated by the U.S., with the Kremlin announcing Wednesday that President of Syria Bashar al-Assad had reiterated his commitment to the plan in a call with Putin.

The provisional ceasefire plan, which envisages both the Syrian government and opposition participating in the negotiation process, calls for ending combat operations and allowing for unobstructed humanitarian aid, all while putting a halt to the clambering for additional territory. It is a laudable step forward in stopping the violence in the region. Yet the joint statement conspicuously lacks any mention of how to handle or punish cease-fire breaches beyond alerting the International Syria Support Group Task Force—of which Russia is a co-chair—which is an unsettling prospect for some opposition groups. Hostilities against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the al-Nusra Front, and other terrorist groups are not included under the ceasefire. Russia has also labeled all groups fighting the regime terrorists. Furthermore, a clear consensus over the fate of Assad is not included as part of a longer-term ceasefire agreement. These exact details are where Russia sees an opportunity, and where the U.S. could be left with renewed fighting and a tattered agreement.

By keeping the conflict at a manageable, simmering level, Russia keeps its influential seat at the negotiating table.

A major problem with Russia positioning itself as a key arbiter of the ceasefire, and as a crucial partner for the U.S. in stabilizing Syria, is that it is often in the Kremlin's interest to prolong conflicts rather than resolve them. Russia has played a role in encouraging an unsettling number of conflicts throughout the former Soviet Union, ranging from the breakaway territory of Transnistria in Moldova to separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Nagorno-Karabakh to Russia's annexation of Crimea. While these conflicts are often described as "frozen"—a hollow way of saying that there has been no definitive outcome in the conflict, and that large-scale violence has subsided—Russia is playing a not-so-subtle role in Ukraine, which is actively ongoing despite the Minsk peace agreements. The continued instability in Ukraine—characterized by rounds of international meetings, hopeful proclamations of peace, and then sporadic outbursts of violence that threaten to derail the whole process—poses a troubling precedent for the Syrian conflict. Could Syria, and the ongoing peace process, turn out to be another Ukraine?

Russia treats the various conflicts it's involved in like burners on a range, where it can dial up or scale back the heat when expedient. Putin is arguably less interested in bringing lasting peace to war-torn Syria, and more so in managing the conflict for the longer term by bringing it to a simmer. Like in Ukraine, there will almost certainly be intermittent clashes between Assad and his opponents. But unlike in Ukraine, where Russia uses the separatist conflict to undermine Kiev, Russia can seize upon the threat of renewed violence to pressure both the U.S. and Turkey, its newest regional adversary after the Turkish military shot down a Sukhoi Su-24 jet in November.

The rhetoric Putin, the Kremlin press office, and Russian media have used is also important to underline. Although the White House indicated that Obama and Putin spoke "at the Kremlin's request," the Kremlin quoted Putin as saying "the initiative for the conversation came from the Russian side. But the interest, undoubtedly, was mutual," as if to highlight the seeming lack of initiative or impetus from the U.S. to reaching a lasting solution. This kind of phrasing is used to subtly frame the conversation, and to underscore that Russia plays a necessary and irreplaceable role in the Syria negotiations. Putin also noted that "recent history, unfortunately, knows many examples when unilateral actions, without the sanctioning of the U.N., for the sake of short-term political or opportunistic interests have led to dramatic results. These examples are on everyone's lips: Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Yemen." It's clear which country Putin was implying: the United States.

More striking is that the White House Office of the Press Secretary release included the following paragraph:

President Obama also emphasized the importance of the fulfilment by combined Russian-separatist forces in eastern Ukraine of their obligations under the Minsk agreements, particularly honoring the cease-fire and permitting the Special Monitoring Mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) full access to the conflict area including the international border. The President underscored the importance of quickly reaching agreement on modalities for holding free and fair elections in eastern Ukraine that meet OSCE standards.

Putin and the presidential press office made no mention of Obama's statements on the Ukraine conflict or Minsk agreements, or that Ukraine was even part of the call.

What's especially interesting about this whole sequence of events is that the Russian public is largely supportive of the Kremlin's involvement in the ongoing conflict in Syria, despite being less interested in and attentive to the conflict in general. In January, only 18 percent of respondents reported that they "actively follow events" in Syria, according to a recent Levada Center poll released early last week, versus 25 percent from a poll last fall. The percentage of Russians who reported they "know a little about, but don't closely follow, the conflict" grew from 64 percent to 69 percent in that same time. Thirteen percent, meanwhile, replied that they were not interested at all in Syria.

Despite these numbers, Levada reported that a majority of respondents are convinced that Russian operations in Syria "need to continue," with 18 percent fully certain and 41 percent believing aerial bombardments against ISIS are necessary. The polling center noted that, "despite [their] poor awareness of the Syrian conflict, the respondents believed that the aims of the Russian military's presence in [Syria] ... correspond to those initially declared by the authorities." Tellingly, Levada cited Putin's emphasis at the beginning of Russia's Syria campaign last fall that "the only true way to combat international terrorism is to 'active pre-emptively ... [and] not wait for when they [the terrorists] come to our home. You do not need to be an expert on these matters to understand that if they succeed in Syria, they will inevitably return to their countries, and come to Russia.'"

This lack of domestic awareness evidently plays into the Kremlin's favor, especially as the United Nations and the international community have criticized Russia's airstrikes (which Amnesty International has called "egregious" war crimes) in conjunction with the Assad regime in Aleppo.

Russia's dubious track record on both conflict resolution and international agreements, along with its positioning under the ceasefire terms, complicates the U.S.'s agenda. It also puts the U.S. in a tough position: If the ceasefire fails, Russia can quickly blame the U.S. and claim that its support of Syrian opposition groups is prolonging the war, since, after all, Russia supports the "legitimate leadership of Syria" no matter how horrible or despotic it may be.

Conversely, Obama will also find himself in a difficult position should Russia push the boundaries of the ceasefire terms: Calling out Russia will only provoke an embittered response from Putin, and could compromise the ceasefire consensus. Yet allowing Russia to, as Putin promised, "carry out the necessary work" with Damascus to maintain the terms will only embolden both Assad and the Kremlin. If the ceasefire does hold, Russia will gain the positive publicity of playing a major role in the steps toward resolving the conflict, for which it will undoubtedly expect some sort of recognition in the future.

Even better for Russia, the ceasefire will prolong Assad's hold on power—and prevent wider formal recognition for the Syrian opposition as a political force. Russia had the most to gain from its ramped-up Syria campaign; with the announced ceasefire starting this Saturday, Russia is still in the same position.

The U.S. dreads the prospect of a drawn-out Syrian quagmire, but Russia is more willing to contemplate such a scenario if it achieves its ends. By keeping the conflict at a manageable, simmering level—a dangerous tactic given the other trends in the region—Russia keeps its influential seat at the negotiating table, all while crafting a solution that could leave it in an even better bargaining position in the region in the long term.

But the more troubling implication is that, despite its posturing, Russia has also demonstrated that it cannot always fully control the forces it backs. This playing with fire risks jeopardizing far more than Russian ambitions in the wider Syrian conflict.