Which way will Syria go? On February 28th went into effect the Syrian ceasefire, which had been agreed upon by the Syrian Contact group at the Munich Security conference (February 11th), including US, Russia, EU, Iran and Saudi Arabia. As the UN and various humanitarian organizations have confirmed, the ceasefire is maintained with some exceptions, such as breaches made by terrorist Daesh forces as well as by Turkey which reportedly has violated the ceasefire by shelling Kurdish position in Northern Syria.
The key question is: Will the ceasefire hold and what strategic lessons can be drawn from the events of the first weeks of 2016, that potentially could contribute to get the migration crisis within the EU under control and improve global strategic stability?
What can be observed is that there is a difference between those in the Washington administration who want peace, and those who rather push for more hawkish policies vis-a-vis Russia. Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University, on March 2nd published as contributing editor an article in the US Magazine The Nation based on his weekly discussion with John Batchelor on the new US-Russian “Cold War”. The headline of the article reads: “The Syrian ceasefire is under attack from within the Obama administration – The US Russia and UN support the agreement, but the Secretary of Defense and other forces are trying to torpedo it.”
Cohen underlined that “Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and top generals informed the White House and Congress that Secretary of State John Kerry’s agreement with Moscow is a ‘ruse’, and that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia remains the ‘No 1 existential threat’ to the United States.” Cohen furthermore noted that “the Syrian ceasefire …if successful – is a successful act of cooperation between Moscow and Washington,” and could become a model for settling the ongoing Ukraine crisis.
Russia’s intervention in Syria to fight IS
What came as a shock for the West, as something which Western observers did not expect, was the way in which Russia militarily intervened in Syria during the last three months. Indicative for the mood among Western strategic observers, were several analysis which were on the one side published in the highly qualified German newsletter Russland- Analysen Nr. 309 (5.02.2016) as well as a background discussion conducted between the newspaper Welt am Sonntag and former German Chief of staff of the Federal Armed Forces, Harald Kujat (WamS 14.2.16).
In the Russland-Analysen monthly newsletter, Margaret Klein from the renown German SWP (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik foundation) who is leading the research group “Eastern Europe and Eurasia”, presented in a concise analysis that, beginning with the airstrikes which Russia began in Syria at the end of September 2015, Russia has demonstrated that it not only was able to fight limited military operations in the “near abroad” (allusion to Ukraine) but that it was also able to conduct “out of area” deployments in areas like the Mideast. According to Klein, Russia has learned the lessons after the military conflict with Georgia ( 2008), and by the end of 2012, under the Defense Minister Schoigu, it began a large modernization of its armed forces, military hardware, military logistics and military command structure. In mid-2015, after realizing that the Syrian Armed forces had run into a military strategic impasse, as Klein notes, Russia made an agreement with the Damascus Government to reinforce the Russian Navy base at the Tartus Sea Port and to obtain a free and indefinite use of the Airport Hmeimim near Latakia. At the same time large scale military maneuvers were held in Russia (Zentr 2105), focused on how to fight terrorist forces from the air. And, at the same time, a broad-based cooperation was initiated between Russia and several regional Mideast players. In July 2015, the commander of the Al Quds Brigade (Elite unit of Iranian revolutionary Guards) visited Moscow to coordinate a common strategy between the Iranian ground troops, the Syrian Army, Hezbollah and the Russian Airforce. End of September, an information center was established in Baghdad, having been agreed upon by Bagdad, Damascus, Teheran and Moscow, with the aim to coordinate their actions against the Islamic State. And shortly before the Russian airstrikes began, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu flew to Moscow to discuss with military circles that Russian military should prevent incidents and respect Israel’s security interests.
Leaving aside potential financial and political risks that the entire military deployment of Russia in Syria could imply for the future, as Klein notes, she concludes that Russia had learned the lessons after the military conflict with Georgia in 2008, by modernizing its army, command structure and military hardware and by deploying airplanes such as Su 25, Su 24 fighter jets, combat helicopters Mi 24 , as well as precision bombs KAB 250 during the aerial operation, as well as modernizing its transport capabilities for the use of Sea- and Air -transport from Southern Russia via the Caspian Sea, Iran and Iraq to Syria.
Russia’s intervention in Syria, is an “intervention following the ‘lessons to be learned’ from Western air operations in the Kosovo war and the Libyan conflict”, Klein wrote. The core of the operation consisting in giving air support for the Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah ground troops, as well as fight against ground targets, spending per day 4 millions US Dollars. She concluded that even if Russia itself faces a potential security problem with IS on its own territory, Moscow’s foreign policy has become an indispensable factor for bringing about a new order in the Mideast.
Former German Chief of Staff criticizes a “black and white mentality” in the West
Another analysis was made by former Inspector of the German federal Army, Harald Kujat in Welt am Sonntag (Febr.14th), noting that the Berlin government at the beginning of the Syrian crisis was quickly joining the chorus of those who demanded that Assad had to go, however without doing anything to make that happen. The Vienna conference, held end of October 2015, was not a European initiative, according to Kujat, but a Russian- American one trying to outline a transition plan for Syria, four years after the outbreak of the conflict. Here, it was noted, the Europeans and Germans were just allowed to participate. Die Welt writes that, as a young lieutenant, Kujat followed the principle that “whoever makes the right decisions must first analyze in a precise way the intentions and plans of the adversary.” What Kujat essentially observes and complains about, is what he calls “a black and white mentality” in the West. Along the lines that one might like Russia or not, but that either way this would not be a good precondition for a sober analysis.
In respect to airstrikes which were carried out by the Russian air force against the city Aleppo, these were strategically motivated. Russia according to Kujat, wants to drive a wedge between those areas controlled by Assad’s troops and those controlled by the terrorist IS militia. This would also interrupt the logistical weapon supply for the IS, flowing from Turkey into the IS territory. Kujat concludes that the Russians have come back on the world stage as global and equal player and that one of their main interests is to prevent the geographical spread of terrorism into the Caucasus.
A similar line is given by senior correspondent of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) Markus Wehner, who commented on February 14th in the FAZ that “Russia has brought about a major turn which is qualified by German security circles as ‘irreversible’.” Its long term strategy is to stabilize the Syrian regime, win against the armed opposition and then fight the IS. The FAZ journalist noted that there is, between the US and Russia a mutual tolerance and that each side informs the other so as not to get in each other’s way. Wehner emphasizes that Russia qualifies the IS as big danger for its own southern flank, given that thousands of IS fighters in Syria and Northern Iraq come from Central Asia states, and that part of Russia’s long-term strategy in Syria is that terrorism will not be allowed to spread to Northern Africa, Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Interview with President Bashar Al Assad in German TV
One day after the ceasefire went into effect, the German public TV Channel ARD conducted an interview with the Syrian President, Bashar Al Assad and the ARD Mideast correspondent Thomas Aders ( February 29th). It was the first time in years that the German citizens could hear from the Syrian president what his thinking was, and judge on their own what is at stake. The President expressed cautious optimism in respect to the ceasefire and qualified it as “a glimmer of hope for the Syrians and for all of us”, underlining that we “deal with a multilateral agreement …you are talking about more than one hundred factions of terrorists and so many other countries that support them.”
In response to the question why all this had lasted for so long, he stated that “it rather lasted so long for other countries who supervise the terrorists (…) mainly the Americans. They started talking about it only a few months ago. For us, from the very beginning, we started this process on a local basis, something we called local reconciliation, where you have this cessation of hostility, where you give the militants amnesty or offer them amnesty so that they can join the Syrian Army.” This agreement, he underlined, is “different and more comprehensive.”
Concerning his ideas about initiating a transitional process in Syria, he stated: “Our answer is a national unity government where whoever wants to join our government (can) be part of it; this government should prepare for the next Constitution. After the Constitution, you should have parliamentary elections that are going to define the shape of the next Syria or the new Syria.” Assad described the Constitution as the “symbol of unity, of sovereignty and the symbol of an independent country” and he underlined that “only the Syrian citizens have the right to say who they want to be President.” Would he step down if the people voted his stepping down? To that question, he answered very straight-forwardly, that he would, in respect for the people’s choice.
Another subject in the interview was the issue of migration. Assad stated that as much as he appreciated the German role in hosting so many Syrians who fled from humanitarian disaster, it would be wiser and more prudent policies regarding the crisis in Syria, to keep the people living in their country, so as “to provide stability, not interfering in their issues. This would be more humanitarian.” Germany and the EU could play a constructive role politically and economically, he said, but the question is “how many European officials are independent from the American position. So far we only see a copy and paste of what they say and what they do.” Aside the Western embargo which, according to Assad, has affected every Syrian citizen, the key question for EU and Germany is “What are they going to do in order to make pressure and exert influence on countries supporting terrorists, like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in order to force them to stop smuggling terrorists and armaments and giving them a lot of logistical support.That’s the question; when all these countries agree or, let’s say, have the will to do their duty regarding this, I can assume, you won’t have a problem to stop the nightmare in Syria.”