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3 August 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:05am

A US-Russia deal in Syria would maintain a bloody status quo

The Assad dictatorship would cling onto power.

By Ruwan Rujouleh

The shooting down of a Russian helicopter by Syrian rebels has resulted in the largest Russian loss in the war to date. A video circulated on social media purports to show locals dragging the body of one of the five crewmembers killed. Though no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which occurred in territory held by the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, the incident will likely escalate matters on the ground. It will certainly impact the anticipated US-Russian deal to cooperate militarily against shared enemies in the embattled country. 

But should this deal help defeat the likes of ISIS, and other groups deemed terrorists or extremists, the position of Assad, whose Russia-backed regime has been at the root of the armed conflict, will be more protected in the long-term than ever. 

Washington and Moscow back completely opposing sides in the civil war. The US and its regional allies supported Syria’s opposition, while Russia remained loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against “terrorists.” Such divisions can be seen clearly in fighting in Aleppo, which has intensified this past week. A US-backed rebel offensive against the Russia-backed Assad regime’s siege of the city has led to nearly 30 civilian casualties in a single day.

The Kremlin ignored the root cause of the conflict, primarily a call for democratic change and an end to Assad’s dictatorship. The two powers’ support for different sides in the conflict created a bottleneck, which has led to difficulties finding a political solution to the seemingly intractable war.

Your enemy is my enemy

It seems, however, that the US and Russia have found a shared objective: Fighting terrorist groups like ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra. This cooperation, a matter not of if, but when, could have a ripple effect, leading to “cessations of hostilities” in various pockets of the Syrian conflict. 

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Russia-US collaboration would also relegate Assad’s fate to second in the US list of priorities.

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This would certainly be more convenient for Moscow and Damascus. Robust relations between the two countries go back to the Soviet era, as does military support. Between 1955 and 1960, the Soviets provided Syria with more than $200m in military aid, strengthening the alliance and moving to contain US influence in the Middle East. Last October, Bashar al-Assad emphasised these ties with a visit to Moscow to seal a joint defence agreement between the two countries. This accord gives the old ally the right to “unlimited” Russian military presence in Syria.

Through almost four years of intense armed conflict, Assad’s forces have been mainly backed by Russian air cover and Iranian fighters. Syrian armed opposition groups counted on US support. Since the first Syrian protesters hit the streets in March 2011, Washington has wanted to engineer a political transition that would save Syrian institutions, while ending Assad’s rule. Moscow, meanwhile, has sought to create a transitional government, and refused to let Assad step down. It claimed doing so would lead to Syrian institutions failing. The Syrian people, the Kremlin said, should decide for themselves through elections.

However, as jihadi groups joined the battle in Syria, the rise of groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham), has pushed the two world powers to agree that fighting terrorism in Syria is their priority. This middle ground has paved the way for the possible military cooperation that might lead to a political solution to end the civil war. The indications are that the US and Russia agreed on cooperation in recent months. One leaked document claims that they would establish a “Joint Implementation Group” in Amman, Jordan. It is unclear whether or not this will actually happen.

A bloody equilibrium

Either way, the deal might face some setbacks because of recent developments: The regime cutting Aleppo’s main supply route, isolating the rebel-held east of Aleppo city; and the latest announcement that Jabhat al-Nusra was splitting from al-Qaeda. This latter looked like an attempt to avoid Russia and the US targeting the group as terrorists. Once again, Moscow and Washington are backing opposing sides on the ground, and in Aleppo, these sides are clearly clashing.  

But as one opposition spokesman said Russia and the US “don’t trust each other.” Despite the current US administration’s willingness to purse a deal, some of the intelligence community and the Pentagon have voiced scepticism. While the talks were still underway, the Russians bombed a secret base for British and American forces southeast of Syria, near the Jordanian border. Additionally, despite a rising civilian death toll, Russian has continued its strikes on Aleppo in support of the regime. The Obama administration is a bind. It is keen to reduce the number of civilians hit by Russia, but it also wants to collaborate against Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, which is embedded with locals in Aleppo, as well as ISIS.

Syria remains as complicated as ever. The country is divided into areas of territorial influence, with regime forces and armed groups in control of various areas. In light of this, it is in Russia and the US’ interests to unite efforts against opposition groups they deem as “terrorists.”  

For Washington and Moscow, the enemy of their enemy has become a friend. The next phase would be to push for a new round of peace talks. There were a lot of speculations that negotiations would relaunch this month. Everyone is waiting to see how the Russia-US military deal may influence the talks. A change in the balance of power on the ground could lead to new positions for the negotiators around the table. 

Either way, the US-Russia deal will do little more than maintain the status quo. Even if the two work together against jihadi groups, Russia will continue to bolster Assad with aggressive tactics. The US does not have enough leverage in the region to block Russia’s support of the Syrian regime.

Moreover, Assad’s fate should not be a second priority for the US. In the long-run, ISIS and its ilk may be defeated, but others, with similarly extremist, violent ideologies will take their place. And Assad will be able to grip on to power, with Moscow fighting his battles for him. 

Ruwan Rujouleh is a Middle East analyst at the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics.