Did Russia pave the way for peace in Syria?

Did Russia pave the way for peace in Syria?

As the conflict in Syria stretches on, the UN Security Council has tried to come up with a solution for peace. Now many are trying to decipher Russia’s recent intervention, which may turn out to have a surprising holistic impact.

For the first time in the wretched conflict, the United Nations Security Council a reached unanimous decision on December 18th to pass a Resolution affirming the legitimacy of the International Syrian Support Group (ISSG) and their previously articulated Vienna Statements on a roadmap that may finally lead the way out of the war.

That the resolution passed with the support of Russia and China is of some note in itself, and may mark a turning point for the international community and for Syria. Running somewhat counter to intuition, we may have Russia to thank for it.

Russia, with support from China, has vetoed at least four previous draft resolutions relating to the Syrian conflict over the past 5 years. In exercising its veto, Russia has hamstrung the UNSC, eliciting frustration from member states and driving the body towards the brink of a (much needed, but never mind) existential crisis.

Meanwhile, Syrian regime president Bashar al-Assad received the cover he needed to continue to bomb (and occasionally gas) his fellow Syrians, including in hospitals and other civilian infrastructure.

So why has this resolution passed and why now? Understanding lies in the changes that have occurred since Russia began its military intervention on September 30. Since then, new developments from various actors suggest that – just maybe – we are entering a new phase of the conflict.

Proxy to partner

Prior to the intervention, the Syrian Arab Army was increasingly fatigued and on the back foot. Pushed out of the East by Daesh, incapable of holding territory in the Lebanese Frontier without help from Hezballah and Iran’s Revolutionary Forces, and dogged elsewhere by rebels both secular and Islamist, what was left of Assad’s regime was slowly being chipped away. Syria was going the way of Libya.

The Russian intervention added a boost to the SAA’s ability to take and hold positions from rebels – but only just. They still required the assistance of Hezballah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard advisors. And without significant added boots on the ground, regime forces have been thwarted by US-made TOW antitank missiles, the flow of which increased after the Russian airstrikes began. Analysts increasingly began framing the conflict as a new proxy war between the US and Russia.

Considering that Russian interests lie more in maintaining a regional foothold and influence, it may have done the math and decided that support for Assad is no longer worth the headache. Instead, it was far easier to simply change the facts on the ground: Russia has been building out a new airbase near Latakia for what may be a long-term stay, complementing its smaller presence in the naval facility at Tartus.

If Russia has gone this track then it would have also calculated that there’s more to gain by facilitating a favorable peace process than by prolonging Assad’s rule. By working with the US and the UNSC to pass the most recent resolution, Russia has gone from isolated pariah to partner of influence – exactly where it would like.

Repositioning on Syria

At least two other events suggest that groups are beginning to look past the conflict. On a somewhat parallel track to the UNSC Resolution, earlier this month saw a large swathe of the Syrian rebel groups meet in Riyadh in an attempt to build consensus and who might lead in negotiating with the regime.

The conference saw a minor upset when the powerful Islamist faction Ahram ash-Sham claimed to withdraw on the grounds that the final conference statements were not favorable enough to Islam, but the conference closed with a promising statement on the future of Syria that brought together more rebel groups, including several that had never previously shown interest in negotiating with the regime.

Also in the East and North of the country, where the Syrian Kurds in 2013 claimed autonomy, the recent creation of the Syrian Democratic Assembly (SDA), a political arm representing chiefly the Syrian Kurdish YPG and YPJ groups, may suggest that these groups, along with a pluralistic representation of other regional actors, are repositioning themselves to be more palatable in the post-Assad Syria.

The statements from the SDA conference surpassed Riyadh’s conference in producing a document that declared their desire to be part of a democratic, pluralist future Syria made up of all its citizens.

Russia’s intervention has escalated the Syrian conflict, but only changed its trajectory and not guaranteed a favorable outcome for President al-Assad. The longer the bloodshed endures the more the regime leader must be thinking about Muammar Gaddafi and weighing it against a negotiated exile. If a peace process does indeed proceed, it may prove to be Russia that gains the most from this entire sordid event in our history.

About Author

Adam Taylor

Adam Taylor is a former energy market analyst for the Canadian government currently working for a high-tech firm in Israel. He holds degrees in biology, sociology and an MA in International Affairs from the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs (Political Economy) at Carleton, Ottawa. You can follow Adam on Twitter @ajaygraytay.