Why Do Russians and Americans Fail to Fix Syria Together?
Want to know more about global politics?
Subscribe to our distribution list
Andrey Kortunov

Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Moscow, Russia





Director General
ORCID 0000-0002-3897-6434
Scopus AuthorID 24782993000


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: +7 (495) 225 6283
Address: 1 Bolshaya Yakimanka Str., Moscow 119180, Russia

Early in the morning of Saturday, September 10th, 2016 in Geneva, after 13 hours of exhausting talks, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, announced a tentative ceasefire deal for Syria. They also stated that this deal was to lead the way to a joint US-Russian air campaign against the ISIS and other extremist groups and new negotiations on the country’s political future. This US-Russian agreement was the second and the last ambitious attempt by Moscow and Washington to work together in Syria. The first one took place three years earlier, in September of 2013, when Barak Obama and Vladimir Putin agreed to work together on eliminating the chemical weapons on the territory of Syria.

The Russian-US dimension has always been an important factor affecting the Russia’s calculations in Syria and in the Middle East at large. Why did Russia intervene in Syria in the first place? In my view, the prime reason was not to rescue the regime in Damascus. Bashar Assad had never been a Kremlin’s client or a close friend of Vladimir Putin, and Syria has too little to offer Russia as an economic partner. True, it might provide a convenient access to the Mediterranean, but Damascus is in no way unique in this sense.  Neither do I believe that the Kremlin was deliberately trying to create additional problems for the United States by messing things in Syria.  If this were the case, it would be more logical to encourage a large-scale US intervention in Syria, turning this country into yet another headache for Americans similar to Iraq or Afghanistan. Even less plausible is the assumption that Moscow was and still is committed to supporting Shia against Sunni. Russian Muslims are predominantly Sunni, and some of the best Russian friends in the Arab world (e.g. Egypt) happen to be Sunni, not Shia.

The Russian intervention, as I can see it, initially was primarily a pedagogical action. After the United States had demonstrated its spectacular inability to ‘fix’ places like Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, Moscow was tempted to offer a different, more practical and more efficient approach to the region. It was particularly important after the Ukrainian crisis cast a dark shadow over Russia’s relations with its Western partners and, above all, with the Obama Administration. The Kremlin had to demonstrate to leaders at the White House that it could be a part of the solution, not a part of a problem. The idea was not to replace the United States in the Middle East, but to change the US approach to the region, most importantly – to convince Americans that their enthusiastic support for the Arab spring had been an irresponsible, a shortsighted and a very dangerous approach. This idea apparently reflects the overall mental framework of contemporary Russian leaders, who believe that the real borderline in the global politics today divides not democracy and authoritarianism, but order and chaos.

However, this hope to use Syria as an opportunity to limit the damage in Russian-American relations caused by the Ukrainian crisis did not last for too long. The painfully negotiated Kerry-Lavrov peace plan collapsed in just a couple of weeks after signing. The Russian side accused the United States of failing to exercise the needed pressure on the select groups of the anti-Assad opposition to make them abide by the terms of the ceasefire agreement – the task that was arguably too big for Washington to handle successfully. Russians also complained that the United States did not manage to separate the ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition from more radical factions gravitating to ISIS and Al Qaeda. Again, it remains unclear whether the United States was in a position to do such a separation.

However, the main source of Kremlin’s frustrations was the perceived unwillingness of the US military to work in any substantive way with their Russian counterparts. In fall of 2016 in Moscow, it became popular to argue that Pentagon had managed to overrule the State Department and the hawkish views or Ash Carter prevailed over more moderate positions of John Kerry.   

It seems that this bitter experience led to a serious reassessment of the Russian approach to Syria and to the region at large. After the failure to create a Russian – US alliance, the Kremlin focused its energy and diplomatic skills on building a coalition of regional players through the Astana de-escalation process. Bringing Turkey and Iran to the negotiating table was an unquestionable diplomatic victory for Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin was working hard to get major Arab countries interested in this new arrangement. The invitation was also extended to the United States, but the US participation was no longer considered critical for the success of Russia’s Syrian strategy.  

The ongoing Russian attempts to forge a broad coalition of ‘responsible’ regional players in the Middle East seem to go beyond Syria, indicating the likely direction of longer-term Kremlin’s plans for the region at large. Russia cannot endorse a Middle East security system based on a regional hegemonic power taking responsibility for stability in its “natural” sphere of influence. In the Middle East case, the role of the regional hegemon could be claimed jointly by Saudi Arabia and UAE, with Saudis providing most of the “hard” power, while Emirati contributing its political ideology and strategic vision. Both Yemen and Qatar crises question the mere feasibility of a “regional uni-polarity”: neither Saudi Arabia nor UAE seem to be capable of successfully “managing” arguably much less powerful regional players. On the contrary, political divisions in the region are getting deeper and prospects for a regional reconciliation under a common hegemonic umbrella are becoming more and more remote. For Russia, the “regional uni-polarity” would mean the need to break its relations with Iran, which Moscow is not ready to do. 

Another traditional regional security model is based on the leading role of an out-of-area hegemon, which acts as an external security provider and an honest broker in regional disputes. The United States appears to be the perfect candidate to play this role. In fact, the concept of a “Greater Middle East” popular with the J.W. Bush — Junior Administration in the beginning of the century, envisaged building various military and political alliances in Middle East and North Africa under the US security protectorate. Moscow consistently opposed this idea.  In the end of the day, the “Greater Middle East” turned out to be stillborn.  First, it was incepted by DC based analysts and bureaucrats with questionable knowledge of the region, Second, it implied the idea of division; the intention was to mobilize the Arab world for a joint struggle against US opponents and foes in the region.  

It is too early to make any final judgements about the Donald Trump Administration strategy in the Middle East region, but for the Kremlin there are grounds to suspect that the United States might get back to its past posture. The concept of an “Arab NATO” backed by US and targeted against Iran seems to gain momentum in Washington. The odds are that this concept will be no more successful that the concept of a “Greater Middle East”: the Arab world is very complex and highly diverse, interests and priorities of various Arab states are in no way identical. An attempt to create a defense alliance similar to NATO in the region does not look realistic.

Nevertheless, let us imagine that such a military bloc could indeed emerge in the Middle East. What security problems would it be in a position to resolve? In the best-case scenario, this arrangement would freeze the current conflicts in the region in the format of a regional Cold War. As we know from the European history of the second half of the XX century, this format has many negative strings attached, including mutual mistrust and suspicions, continuous arms race and political tensions, and, most importantly, an inherent risk of the Cold War turning into a real “hot” war.

Where should Moscow look for alternatives to these deficient models? For the Russian leadership, the only plausible alternative is a collective security model applied to the Middle East. This model might look too radical, naïve or detached from the current regional political realities. Nevertheless, the desperate situation in Yemen and the stalemate around Qatar suggest that any half-way, tactical   solutions are not good enough to handle basic security problems of the region.

The new regional collective security system, as seen from Moscow, should be based on universal international law principles, including respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states, protection of basic human and minority rights, etc. The United Nations Security Council or special mechanisms launched by the Security Council should provide credible guarantees for the enforcement of the new arrangement. For instance, one can consider an analogue to the P5+1 setting, which turned out to be quite efficient in dealing with the Iranian nuclear portfolio. A system of an efficient international monitoring of the situation in the region should also be considered. One of the options is to create a regional OSCE-type institution.  The United States, as a United Nations Security Council permanent member, will have to be involved in such an arrangement, but not as the hegemonic power, but as one of important overseas players.        

One of the fundamental principles of any international collective security system — its inclusive nature. Leading Arab nations — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE and others — have to play a decisive role in building such a system. However, from the Moscow’s viewpoint, no one should ignore non-Arab states of the region -such as Iran and Turkey. These states are no less interested in a stable, predictable, prosperous and vibrant Middle East than their Arab neighbors are. It would be not only unfair, but also highly shortsighted to remove any of these states from the regional arrangement. To exclude just a single major player would make the whole system extremely fragile and unreliable.

Of course, the idea of a collective security system in the Middle East appears to be very distant from the current regional realities, but Moscow regards its successful endgame in Syria as the first step towards this remote, but attainable goal.  Whether this is something that might resonate in Washington, remains to be seen.

Source: American Herald Tribune