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US and Russia need to work together to bring peace to war-torn Syria

The stalled Geneva peace talks on Syria, in which the US and its allies are full participants, will have to be revived

opinion Updated: Apr 17, 2018 19:00 IST
Fortunately the exchange of warlike declarations last week, in which Moscow hinted that it would hit back at US warships in the Mediterranean Sea, and US President Donald Trump’s tweet asking Russia to “get ready”, appears to have been mostly theatrical posturing(AP)

In the aftermath of last weekend’s United States-led missile strikes against alleged chemical weapons sites in Syria, the Russians say nothing has really changed.

Analysts close to the Kremlin say that Moscow will continue to back the increasingly successful military campaign to restore all of Syria under the control by Bashar al-Assad’s government, as well as to pursue the peace process, excluding the US and its allies, which it initiated with Iran and Turkey last year.

They say the Kremlin has become convinced that the US has no coherent endgame for Syria, and that the missile strikes and continued occupation of about a third of Syrian territory by the US and its local allies have no purpose other than to play the role of spoiler.

Fortunately, the exchange of warlike declarations last week, in which Moscow hinted that it would hit back at US warships in the Mediterranean Sea if any Russian lives were endangered by US missiles, and US President Donald Trump’s tweet asking Russia to “get ready”, appears to have been mostly theatrical posturing. It’s clear that US and Russian military “deconfliction” teams co-ordinating in Syria worked together to ensure that Russian air defences were switched off on the night of April 13 and no cruise missile trajectories came near any Russian asset in Syria.

“Russia’s official reaction is to denounce these strikes as illegal and wrong,” says Pavel Zolotarev, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies. “They came just before a team of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was to begin its work at the site of the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma. The fact that US leaders weren’t ready to wait for inspectors to do their job indicates they wanted to make a military statement, and didn’t want it to be clouded by whatever the inspectors might find.

“Luckily, the Pentagon and Russian ministry of defence were in close contact, and made certain there would be no complications. So, the strikes had a mostly political and symbolic character. Yet they have introduced new tensions into the US-Russia relationship, which was already very bad,” he adds.

A top Russian military official now suggests that Moscow may equip Syria with its second-to-latest anti-aircraft system, the S-300, to deter future strikes by the US and its allies. “A few years ago, taking into account a pressing request from some of our western partners, we abandoned the supplies of the S-300 missile systems to Syria. Considering the latest developments, we deem it possible to get back to discussing this issue,” said Lt Gen Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian general staff.

This new source of acrimony comes amid a widening storm of tensions between Russia and the West. The row with Britain over Russia’s alleged involvement in the nerve agent poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter continues to boil. Mutual rounds of diplomatic expulsions have slashed the physical infrastructure of ties to the bone, leaving Russia and the US almost incapable of carrying out normal contacts.

The larger question about Syria is whether Russia and the US can co-operate in the endgame, to bring a lasting political settlement to the brutal, seven-year-long civil war. Experts say that the Russian-led Astana Process, which bypasses the US, is not going well.

“The military situation in Syria is far better than it was a year ago. But, despite these meetings with Turkey and Iran, a political settlement looks no closer,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “Russia’s relationship with these two partners, Turkey and Iran, is very difficult, as are the relations between them. Putin puts a lot of effort into trying to keep his relations with [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan on track, but it’s clearly very hard to do.”

Turkey issued a statement supporting US missile strikes, while Iran appears disappointed with Russia’s failure to deter them, Lukyanov says.

“It’s becoming clear that there can be no workable settlement for Syria without direct agreement and cooperation between the US and Russia,” says Vladimir Sotnikov, an independent West Asia analyst. That means the stalled Geneva peace talks on Syria, in which the US and its allies are full participants, will have to be revived.

“Things are certainly more complicated in the wake of these strikes. Russia is now worried that they may be repeated at any moment,” he adds. “But communication is still going on between us and the Americans in Syria — it’s actually quite effective — and so there is hope that this dismal picture can be changed for the better.”

Fred Weir is a Moscow-based senior journalist

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Apr 17, 2018 19:00 IST